Saturday Night Fever (1977)    2 Stars

“Catch it.”

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Saturday Night Fever (1977) 

Director: John Badham

Cast: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller

Synopsis: A Brooklyn teenager feels his only chance to succeed is as the king of the disco floor. His carefree youth and weekend dancing help him to forget the reality of his bleak life.

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Back in 1977-78 the entire world was obsessed with Saturday Night Fever. It ran for months at the cinemas, the soundtrack LP topped the charts for weeks (and then stubbornly hung around like a guest who doesn’t want to leave the party), and the Bee Gees saw a surge in popularity which totally eclipsed their success in the 1960s. The film also spawned numerous global hits for other recording artists featured on the soundtrack, and saw impressionable kids rushing to dance classes to learn how to dance like Tony Manero. I was 15 when Saturday Night Fever was released and, as this was before the advent of home entertainment, it was the first X-rated movie I ever saw. Naturally, I loved it. To be honest, I would have loved it if it was utter crap simply because it was an X-rated movie and it had taken me forever to work up the nerve to buy a ticket. When I re-watched it for the first time about a decade later it looked horribly dated and had lost most of its bite through being edited for TV. It seemed like Saturday Night Fever really was utter crap – how, even at fifteen, could I have believed otherwise? Now, thirty years later, it no longer looks dated but has become something f a period piece, a spyglass into how things were back in the mid-1970s, immediately before the discovery of AIDS suddenly changed everything. And given that it’s a movie about teenagers dancing, fighting and having sex in the backs of cars, it’s surprisingly good.

John Travolta (Carrie, Pulp Fiction) exudes a dangerous brand of raw sexuality as he struts along the street (in an opening sequence that has been parodied so often it’s difficult to keep a straight face while watching it) or glides around the dance floor. He’s Tony Manero, a streetwise 18-year-old peacock who works in a paint shop and lives with his parents in New York. Manero’s a nice enough kid, even if he’s a bit rough around the edges, but he’s a nobody until he steps onto the dancefloor, where he’s instantly transformed into some kind of prince, a magnet for women, a figure of admiration and envy to other men and friends. Ralph Bode’s camera loves him too, gliding along the dance floor in a seamless duet with its subject, stooping low to portray him as a larger than life figure.

But Saturday nights aren’t enough for Tony. He’s restless, and wants more from life, although he’s not sure what exactly, and hasn’t a clue how to get it. He finds in fellow dancer Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) something of a kindred spirit, even though their relationship, which is solely centred around dancing together in preparation for a contest, is a prickly one. Stephanie has a job with a record producer, and repeatedly drops the names of the famous recording artists with which she’s shared coffee, a habit which serves only to remind Tony of the confines of his own world. Without meaning to be, she’s an unlikeable character.

It’s easy to write off Saturday Night Fever as a fad movie – it single-handedly kicked off the disco craze of the late 1970s – but to do so is to pay it a disservice. It has a gritty realism about it which emphasises the moments on the dance floor as brief respites, filled with grace and beauty. More of Saturday Night Fever takes place on the mean streets of New York than on the spurious glamour of the dance floor, and that arena is a particularly bleak one which colours the lives and attitudes of those who live within it. “You can’t fuck the future,” warns Tony’s boss at the paint shop, “the future fucks you.” Later, as he watches the police searching for a body in the river, Tony realises that ‘there’s ways of killing yourself without killing yourself.’ It’s pretty downbeat stuff, and it taps into that sense of restlessness we all feel at times, and which we sometimes wish we had listened to in our teenage years.

The gritty, testosterone-fuelled atmosphere of constrained aggression and strutting bravado is a pervasive one and, perhaps surprisingly, one in which Travolta thrives. It’s easy for narcissistic pretty boys to become comical figures, but he somehow balances a peculiar mix of toughness and fastidiousness to create an entirely believable character who manages to be endearing in spite of himself. The only downside to the movie is an unconvincing gang-feud sub-plot which attempts to show that Tony and his gang are genuine tough guys, and an intensely irritating friend who spends most of the movie fretting over his pregnant girlfriend.

(Reviewed 28th March 2015)

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