It is nearly impossible to objectively assess the magnitude of the impact that Saturday Night Fever had all over the world. Arguably, Saturday Night Fever is the movie that most radically altered and reshaped the many facets of popular culture. While it is true that other memorable films such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) were seminal, inspirational, and generated the avid interest of legions of fans worldwide, the influence of Saturday Night Fever was far deeper, multifaceted, and across a wider segment of society.
Indeed, Saturday Night Fever not only revolutionized the film and music industries, but it also defined and dictated the dress codes and hairstyles of an entire generation. In an attempt to emulate the spirit of this flick, and for years to come, regular folks wore polyester shirts, platform shoes; bell-bottom pants, gold chains, and elaborated hairstyles. It has also been reported that during the last part of the ’70s, John Travolta’s iconic white suit was the most popular in proms and other social gatherings. Clearly, even though Saturday Night Fever does not have today a huge and fervent fan following as the Star Wars saga does, it is also true that very few people ever dressed up like storm troopers or Jedi knights on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that after nearly 30 years since its opening night, Saturday Night Fever remains the quintessential emblem of the ’70s.
Still, any conversation about Saturday Night Fever often tends to boil down to a discussion of its trendy disco music. And in this regard perhaps the most brilliant quality of this flick is the profound way it fused cherished images with truly unforgettable music, making it impossible to talk about one without referring to the other. For instance, think about the memorable opening sequence where, on a Brooklyn street, Tony Manero (John Travolta) walks to the beat of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”.
Interestingly enough, when the Bee Gees agreed to participate in Saturday Night Fever by providing the main themes, they could not have imagined that it was a decision that marked a major turning point in their careers. According to the trio of brothers, by the mid-’70s they only saw a grim and short future ahead of them. But quite unexpectedly for everybody involved in the project, in only a matter of days after the release of the film, the Bee Gees’ featured songs “How Deep is your Love”, “Stayin’ Alive”, and “Night Fever” rocketed to the top of the charts, and stayed there for over 20 weeks.
Few would disagree that, thanks to the popularity of the film and the music, the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever marked a new era in pop music. Indeed, the resulting album quickly became the number one best selling soundtrack of all time, and to date it has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. In the US alone, the Saturday Night Fever album has gone platinum no less than fifteen times (that is, more than 15 million copies have been sold in the US). In addition, the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever proved to be seminal in the renaissance of the disco music during the late ’70s, and in spite of all its detractors, it became the characteristic sound of the era.
However, it is important to note that, contrary to popular belief, Saturday Night Fever did not invent disco music. By the mid-’70s the sound of disco was very well established with its distinctive “four to the floor” drum pattern and the pervasive use of a syncopated electric bass line. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps ironic that by the time of the production of this flick, disco music and dancing was mostly an underground New York trend in sheer decline.
One of the reasons for such a lack of popularity is that, during the early and mid-’70s, disco was not well regarded by society at large. Indeed, discotheques had a reputation of being homosexual hangouts, where drugs and prostitution were rampant and readily available. It was thanks to British writer Nick Cohn, who wrote the 1976 New York Magazine article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” in which he glamorized discotheques and their crowds, that Hollywood became interested in the subject matter. Interestingly enough, while this piece was supposed to be a factual report on the sub-culture that lived the disco scene, Cohn eventually revealed in 1997 that he had made it all up.
While “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” became the basis for the story behind Saturday Night Fever, the music was always envisioned to be the main driving force of the film. However, this landmark film was never intended to be a musical in the same fashion as West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961) or The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), where every few minutes the characters suddenly stop whatever they are doing and start singing and dancing. Instead, the disco music in Saturday Night Fever was merely used to enhance the development of the narrative and to serve as a background to the action.
Quite unfortunately, even though our collective cultural memory has rightfully situated Saturday Night Fever as the film that launched disco music into the mainstream, it also has ignored or forgotten the powerful story it told. That is, while most people associate Travolta’s agile dancing sequences with the flick, very few actually remember the complexity of the socially conscious narrative. Indeed, Saturday Night Fever presents an incisive criticism to the many class, gender, and cross-generational problems that haunted that period of American history.
The issue of class segregation, for instance, is stylishly showcased in Saturday Night Fever from the very first frame of the film. Here the camera shows the opulent skyline of Manhattan, and then slowly pulls over across the East River to show a more humble Brooklyn borough, where most of the movie takes place. The film repeatedly makes the point that such a geographical separation also conveys a deep social and economical division: only those with class and money inhabit Manhattan. For most of the characters in Saturday Night Fever, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge paradoxically represents both, a connection and an insurmountable barrier to a better life.
These class anxieties are perfectly embodied in Tony, who is a troubled teenager being raised in a highly dysfunctional family of Italian descent. A clear representative of the lower middle class, Tony has a dead end job at the local hardware store and helps his parents with the household bills. As revealed by the film, Tony is a self-made expert in the history and trivia of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which signifies his desire for crossing the class divide.
However, the depth of the social abyss that allegorically separates Brooklyn and Manhattan is revealed during a conversation between Tony and Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), Tony’s love interest who works as a secretary at a talent office across the river. While Tony has to mix paints for his customers and eat a couple of pizza slices on his lunch break, Stephanie dines at expensive restaurants in the company of Eric Clapton and David Bowie. As presented in the film, the contrast of both lifestyles is so enormous, that it almost appears as if they are talking about two completely different countries and cultures.
Nevertheless, Saturday Night Fever makes the point that class systems follow artificial and arbitrary codes. Indeed, in a rather amusing manner the film shows how Stephanie is just as uneducated and ignorant as Tony. When they talk about Lawrence Olivier, Stephanie insists that he is famous because of his advertisements for a photographic equipment company. Similarly, Stephanie believes that the original creator of Romeo and Juliet is Franco Zeffirelli, instead of Shakespeare, because he directed the 1968 film version. And even further, Stephanie claims that tea is a more sophisticated beverage than coffee, just because her coworkers prefer it.
To compound his problems, Tony suffers from a rather dramatic case of identity crisis. That is, during most of the week he is a humble worker that has to stand the abuse and apathy of his parents, but once Saturday night arrives he becomes the king of the local discotheque. The narrative structure of Saturday Night Fever then becomes evident: Tony has to learn to negotiate his many socio-economical tribulations with his desires and innate dancing abilities.
Nevertheless, Tony, as any of his neighborhood friends, is far from being an exemplary good kid. Instead, in the film he is presented as hedonist, prone to violent outbursts, revengeful, homophobic, racist, misogynist, foul mouthed, and even an attempted rapist. Also, Tony lives at his parents’ house; he is uneducated and unable or unwilling to attend college and has a dead end job. He is a truly distressed character that literally stands nowhere, and has nowhere to go. However, it is due to Travolta’s histrionic abilities that a grim character such as Tony, with so many negative traits, nonetheless appears so sympathetic on the screen.
But then again, Tony is a clear product of his dysfunctional environment. Consider for instance his misogynistic tendencies, which are made evident at several points during the film. While such behavior is inexcusable, the traditional gender politics and roles that his family imposes on him certainly reinforce this conduct. In a scene where he tries to help his mother clean up the table after dinner, his father grabs him by the arm and tells him that men do not perform that type of work.
With details such as these, Saturday Night Fever presents a sophisticated political discourse that deals with a variety of complex cultural issues. Personally, as I grow older, I find myself appreciating the thematic cleverness of Saturday Night Fever more than ever. Also, even after repeated viewings I continue to observe new details that add to the elegant narrative and aesthetic structure of the film. For example, as the actors in the background remain in character, they continue to reinforce the storytelling and showcase how complex it was to frame and choreograph this flick.
Such minute details can be fully appreciated in the most recent home video incarnation of Saturday Night Fever. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the film, this commemorative edition showcases pristine audio and video quality. This DVD rehashes some of the extra features found on the previous editions, including the insightful audio commentary by John Badham and the three deleted scenes. This edition also includes a series of mini-documentaries on the genesis of the film, featuring nearly all the members of the cast and crew. However, Travolta is conspicuously missing from any of these extra features. Unfortunately, the highlights from the VH1’s Behind the Music episode on Saturday Night Fever, which features Travolta talking about the film, and which was included in the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD, is nowhere to be found here. Thus, fans of the film are strongly recommended to have both editions on their DVD collection.
From a cultural context, it is interesting to note that in spite of its bleakness, violence, foul language, and sexual situations, Saturday Night Fever was an overwhelming and cherished success across America. And even a toned-down version of the flick proved to be extremely popular among younger viewers. Arguably, the life style of Tony deeply resonated with the political disappointment, social discontent, and rampant hedonism that characterized the years following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. In a sense, portraying a story that questions the rules and values of modern society from the point of view of a disaffected teenager, Saturday Night Fever became an alluring metaphor for freedom.