1977’s Saturday Night Fever is without a doubt one of cinema’s all-time, irrefutably classic soundtracks. Featuring hits like “Stayin’ Alive,” “Disco Inferno,” “Boogie Shoes,” and “A Fifth of Beethoven,” it is a perfectly funky crash course in disco music that will have you shaking your booty without shame or remorse. And Saturday Night Fever is also a movie. While the songs staples of wedding receptions and themed bowling nights, the film itself is an awkward time capsule from an era and subculture with few redeeming qualities. Unsightly fashion and even more unsightly human behavior come together to form a slight story that is occasionally entertaining, and more than occasionally cringe-worthy.
Set in a time when men were men, women were women, and chest hair was both plentiful and regularly on display, John Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a nineteen year old from the aggressively Italian neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Tony is an Italian cliché he spends his days working a dead end job in a paint store, which pays just enough to live at home with his casually abusive parents before blowing whatever is left of his paycheck partying with his friends on the weekends. For Tony, it’s more than just a party, though. After spending hours primping his hair in the mirror, posing like Bruce Lee in his underwear, and picking out the perfect combination of tight-fitting pastels, he heads to the local disco club, 2001 Odyssey, the only place where he can really be himself.
Tony is a nobody at work and at home, but on the dance floor, he is truly a king. Everyone knows his name, everyone knows his moves, and everyone gives him the respect that is so sorely lacking in the rest of his life. Women fight for the chance to fawn over him, mop the sweat from his forehead, or if they’re really lucky, maybe even dance with him for a song or two. One young lady, Annette (Donna Pescow), is so in love with Tony that she constantly offers to “make it” with him, despite his equally constant rejections. As Tony says, “you make it with some of these chicks, and they think you gotta dance with ‘em.” Truly a man with priorities. Even so, he agrees to be Annette’s dance partner for the club’s upcoming dance competition, then casts her aside when he sees a beautiful young, Stephanie Morgano (Karen Lynn Gorney) and is immediately drawn to her as a potential partner – mostly, though not exclusively, for dancing. The duo proves to be a perfect pair. They are equally insufferable personally, but have an immediate chemistry on the dance floor.
The rest of the film is part coming of age story, part dance-porn, and part social commentary. In exploring the Italian culture of 1970s Bay Ridge, the film explores a litany of hard-hitting issues, including racism and misogyny. The main problem with the film is that it spends most of its time on the wrong side of them. Tony treats every woman in his life at best dismissively, and at worst abusively. Annette alone spends most of the film shifting from one extreme to another. As Tony explains, a girl has to decide early “if she’s gonna be a nice girl or a cunt,” a dichotomy she can’t possibly win. When she tries to be the former, he pushes her away. When she tries to be the latter, he judges and shames her.
Similarly, his crew harbors a long-standing hatred for the neighboring Puerto Ricans. Their racist diatribes occasionally spill over into violent gang fights. While Tony sometimes seems uncomfortable with the extent of his friends’ racism, and in the end makes a small gesture of goodwill that bridges the racial divide, his single act of kindness is quickly undercut when he witnesses and participates in a series of backseat date rapes, both attempted and successful. Saturday Night Fever sets out to be a story about a young man escaping his brutal and restrictive culture, but Tony spends too much time entrenched in that culture and too little time overcoming it to ever really become a sympathetic or likable character.
If the film has a saving grace, it is certainly Travolta’s performance. Despite Tony’s flaws, Travolta infuses the character with a gritty, low-class charm that keeps you rooting for him through most of his bad decisions and unconscionable behavior. Though the club scenes can become a tedious blur of embarrassing clothing and mediocre dance moves, the sequences that showcases Travolta’s real dance skills are nothing short of spectacular. His vast array of bottom waggles and pelvic thrusts may not instill modern audiences with the same degree of forehead-wiping swooning. Nevertheless, they’re sure to impress.
Verdict: 2 out of 5 Stars
Despite a strong performance from Travolta, an excellent soundtrack, and a handful of well-choreographed dance numbers, Saturday Night Fever does not hold up well. While it doesn’t exactly glorify the overly macho culture that permeated lower Brooklyn in the 70s, it never does enough to criticize that culture either. Those wishing to experience the fun of the disco era would be better served by renting Airplane! and fast-forwarding to the Saturday Night Fever parody scene, which sums up the film in shorter and much more enjoyable fashion.