Saturday Night Fever (1977)

11 Dec

1977

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When people think of the title “Saturday Night Fever,” they mostly think of the lighthearted moments that involve John Travolta dancing on a disco floor, as well as the soundtrack, which includes many memorable songs performed by the Bee Gees. And that’s how I thought of it, having heard the soundtrack before actually watching the film. In fact, there were even a few times when I labeled it as “the disco movie.”

And boy, was I way off. “Saturday Night Fever” may have its entertaining, cheerful moments on the dance floor, but the film as a whole is a hard-edged, gritty drama about a guy trying to get by in life while hanging on to what he has left to lose. And its main character is not a wholesome, happy-go-lucky leading man, as for the most part, he’s sexist, racist, and vulgar. But he lives for Saturday night and lets out his anger brought on by life on the dance floor at a disco. He has a charisma that can either be admired or laughed at. And maybe he can change and grow out of his habits and lifestyle.

John Travolta stars in a brilliant performance as 19-year-old Brooklyn local Tony Manero, a macho guy who cares for looking good, getting laid, and being the best dancer. His personality gives his less-ambitious friends the illusion that he has everything covered. But his life is as screwed up as everyone else’s. He lives with a family that worships his older brother, who is a priest (his mother even makes the sign of the cross when she mentions his name). The father yells for no apparent reason and often snaps at Tony at the dinner table.

By the way, the funniest moment is when Tony’s dad hits him in the head and Tony reacts by shouting, “Watch the hair! I work on my hair a long time, and you hit it!”

But outside of his home, Tony is king of the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey disco and worshipped by women, including a young, spunky floozy-wannabe named Annette (Donna Pescow) who desperately wants to make it with Tony. Tony doesn’t care for her in the slightest, but dances with her because she’s a good dancer.

Tony has a certain way of looking at women—they are either nice girls or they’re tramps. He does know that he doesn’t want to have sex with Annette because he wouldn’t respect her anymore, but he himself isn’t entirely fond of his own belief, especially when he sets his sights on a Brooklyn girl, Stephanie (Karen Gorney), and decides he wants her. But first he wants to get to know her first and for her to know him before bringing up snappy judgments—and she does, as she describes him to his face as a “cliché” who is going nowhere, while she has made it as a secretary in Manhattan. She only comes to Brooklyn to dance, and with the $500 dance contest approaching, Tony and Stephanie team up to enter it.

Let’s talk about the themes of “Saturday Night Fever.” There are two in particular. One is relating to women not just in a sexual way. Tony doesn’t see most women as people and more like objects he and his friends can put in the back seat of their car and perform sexual deeds with. But with his new, complicated relationship with Stephanie, he can learn to respect women and acknowledge them more than his friends can or will. For example, on their first date, he tries to act more mature than he is, and Stephanie sees right through it, causing Tony to subtly realize that women aren’t as dumb as he would like to think they are. Another important theme is the dream of young people escaping the same old routine of working and “being nowhere, going no place” and reaching their version of the towers of Manhattan. There’s a scene in which Tony sits with Stephanie on a bench in a park, where they can see one of the bridges that lead out of Brooklyn. He tells her about it, and you can sense that his dream is to just leave his Brooklyn life behind and start anew in Manhattan. This is after Stephanie put him down about being a “cliché” doing the same stuff over and over again with his friends and blowing off steam on the dance floor, and you get the sense that the desire is becoming more evident to him.

Everything pays off in the end in which Tony does grow up, leave his worthless buddies (whose macho deeds accidentally gets one of them killed), and he does cross that bridge into Manhattan, where he will start a new life with an enlightened view of the world around him and the women in his life.

These themes are very well-handled and make the film much more deeper than you’d expect, as you can interpret your own analyses toward most of the little events, such as Stephanie’s reasoning, Tony’s reasons for dancing, or the visit of Tony’s priest brother who is thinking of quitting priesthood, etc.

And then there’s the dancing. Disco may be dated, and most cynics who haven’t even seen this film can argue that that’s the reason for not watching it. But the themes are far from dated, and dancing here is not what the film is about at all. Dancing is only here as a way for Tony to escape his regular life, even if it is for just a little while each week. It’s a subtle fundamental point that people can miss if they don’t watch this film all the way through. And at times, I can imagine why it would be tough to sit through this, because Tony and his friends really are profane and vulgar to themselves and to others, including women and minorities. But really, this film doesn’t necessarily glamorize their attitudes; if anything, it criticizes them. But I digress. The dancing in “Saturday Night Fever” is energetic and the soundtrack, especially the songs by the Bee Gees (“Staying Alive,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancing,” and so on), is fabulous.

Actually, I just realized how perfect the song “Staying Alive” is for this movie. Especially that lyric that goes “I’m going nowhere / Somebody help me / Somebody help me yeah”—I didn’t realize until now how much meaning it has.

John Travolta takes center stage in “Saturday Night Fever” and his performance is nothing short of brilliant. His character can be rough around the edges at times, but the more you get to know him, the more you realize how much he needs to leave Brooklyn. And he’s very charismatic, particularly in the little moments that give him joy, such as when his boss at the paint store gives him a $2.50 raise. He’s so happy about it that his annoyed boss actually doubles it! His happiness is so real you can reach out and touch him. And Travolta is also a terrific dancer. There’s one extended moment midway through in which he has a solo dance in the middle of the floor, and it’s the most energetic dance sequence in the movie. Travolta is wonderful here. And “Saturday Night Fever” is a very well-done film that has more than meets the eye.

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