Saturday Night Fever

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Saturday Night Fever

A film that captures the essence of the disco craze that flowered in the 1970s, Saturday Night Fever (1977) is arguably the quintessential document of an era that came, a decade later, to be one of the most ridiculed periods of the twentieth century. Supported by a best-selling movie soundtrack and and instantly iconic leading man in John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever survived the demise of 1970s cultural artifacts such as polyester, Soul Train, and KC and the Sunshine Band, to become a cult classic. The film enjoyed a resurgence in popularity with the 1990s disco-culture renaissance that was heralded by such films as Boogie Nights (1997) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). Based on a short story by Nik Cohn and directed by John Badham, Saturday Night Fever starred Donna Pescow, Karen Lynn Gorney, and Travolta as Tony Manero, an average, Italian-American working man by day, and a disco demigod by night. The role rocketed Travolta to international stardom, while making him as idolized a figure in America as Farrah Fawcett (a poster of whom Tony Manero has on his bedroom wall in the film).

An over-abundance of foggy, disco-ball dance scenes aside, Saturday Night Fever is as much a film about what some consider to be the frivolous, politically neutral disco scene of the 1970s as it is about long-standing class and cultural differences. Set in a lower-middle class, Catholic neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Saturday Night Fever traces Tony Manero's struggle to attain a sense of self-worth in economically depressed, culturally conservative surroundings. The film opens with an aerial shot of the Manhattan skyline that moves across the Brooklyn Bridge in silence until, as the camera reaches Brooklyn itself, the throbbing sounds of the Bee Gees and the noise of traffic chime in as Tony struts down the streets of his neighborhood. Raised by conservative, Catholic parents, and a revered older brother who is a priest, Tony spends all of his free time and money perfecting his image for weekend appearances at the "2001-Odyssey" discotheque, where he excels as a dancer. Tony's function in his community can be likened to that of shaman, according to critic John Cooke in "Patterns of Shamanic Ritual in Popular Film." Neither a priest nor a medicine man, the shaman's function is to cure the sick in his community. On the dance floor, Tony commands ecstatic admiration from his peers and acts as a new type of spiritual savior in the face of Catholic conservatism. His dancing unites and lifts the spirits of his alienated, economically depressed community of peers. The power of his physical presence and prowess, combined with his confident "attitude" is graphically demonstrated in scenes where the crowd parts when Tony hits the dance floor and his friends cheer as he dances his solos. The bartender of the club even calls him Nureyev.

The opposition between the non-ideological impact of the disco scene and the staunch, ideological power of the Catholic Church in the film is underscored in the relationship between Tony and his brother, Frank. When Frank announces that he has lost his faith in religion and will leave the priesthood, Tony's own faith in his talent as a dancer and his belief in the regenerative space of the discotheque grows. After meeting Stephanie McDonald, an older woman from the neighborhood who is enamored with Manhattan and in the process of refining her image, he begins to drift away from his group of friends. Stephanie, a local girl turned posh, presents the key to escape from his neighborhood and entry into the upscale world of Manhattan, just over the bridge.

John Travolta was a trained actor and dancer by the time he landed the role of Tony Manero. He quit school at he age of 16 to pursue acting, studied dance under Gene Kelly's brother, Fred Kelly, and had appeared in several stage productions, a popular television show (Welcome Back, Kotter), and a major motion picture by the time he made Saturday Night Fever. He reprised his role as Tony Manero in Staying Alive (1983), but the disco craze had faded and so had Travolta's luster. After a long period out of the limelight, Travolta returned to mainstream Hollywood cinema with a string of 1990s hit films, including Pulp Fiction (1994), Phenomenon (1996), and Primary Colors (1998).

—Kristi M. Wilson

Further Reading:

Cohn, Nik. "Another Saturday Night." Life. Vol. 8, No. 21,1998, 48-49.

Cooke, John. "Patterns of Shamanic Ritual in Popular Film." Literature/Film Quarterly. No. 12, 1984, 50-57.

Sautman, Francesca Canadé. "Women in the Shadows: Italian American Women, Ethnicity and Racism in American Cinema." Differentia. Vol. 6-7, Spring/Autumn 1994, 219-246.

Tamburri, Anthony Julian, Paolo A. Giordano, and Fred L. Gardaphé, editors. From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana. West Lafayette, Purdue University Press, 1991.