YOU SHOULD BE DANCING: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
Although the plot of Saturday Night Fever is only glancingly related to Disco, the film capitalized on the resurgence of dance clubs and dance music that began around 1974, and transformed an urban phenomenon with a jet-set and bohemian following into full-blown craze for group choreography (“Do the Hustle”) at suburban wedding receptions and junior high dances. The film and its blockbuster, double-LP soundtrack, masterminded by Robin Gibb and Robert Stigwood, made the BeeGees and John Travolta into superstars overnight and, when the backlash set in, nearly destroyed their careers, so closely were they associated with skin-tight polyester suits, Qiana, and gold chains.
Set in a depressing, ethnic enclave in Brooklyn less than a mile from Manhattan, the world depicted in Saturday Night Fever is culturally lightyears away from the sophistication and glamour of Studio 54. The screenplay was inspired by Nik Cohn’s long, semi-sociological article "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," published in New York magazine in June, 1976, which documents the disco dancing culture of working-class New Yorkers. The movie is a classic example of the unvarnished naturalism that made American movies of the 1970s seem fresh, honest and real. The cultural backdrop to Saturday Night Fever is the dangerous, dysfunctional, ethnically-divided New York of the 1970s, the home to blackouts, transit strikes and crater-like potholes, depicted in Panic in Needle Park (1971), Serpico (1973) and Death Wish (1974), where anyone stupid enough to attempt breakfast at Tiffany’s was immediately mugged. Saturday Night Fever also concludes the series of major 1970s movies about the realities of Italian-American life that began with The Godfather, and includes Mean Streets and Rocky.
This downer setting is well-suited to the coming of age plot, in which a vulgar but naturally talented, protagonist realizes he must transcend his working-class circumstances in order to fulfill his artistic potential. The vain and lazy Tony Manero is a knucklehead living with his parents whose life revolves around Saturday nights spent on the dance floor of a tacky Brooklyn dance club. Happy to be the big fish in a small pond, the show-off Tony performs crowd-pleasing, dance solos to impress his friends and score with chicks. These scenes are the best in the movie—the lithe and limber Travolta tears up the screen, doing all the electrifying dancing himself, which director John Badham didn’t mar with over-editing. (When Paramount suggested the dance sequence be shot close in, to focus on his looks instead of the dancing, Travolta, who had run two miles and danced three hours a day for months to get in shape for the movie, threatened to drop out of the project.) For the drama of having to give it all up to pursue the slim possibility of success alone in an unknown, intimidating place to be believable, Travolta has to make Tony’s tacky, limited universe seem fabulous for a few seconds, and the 23-year old’s expert portrayal of youthful confident and narcissism more than fulfills that genre requirement.
Travolta’s real co-stars are the Brothers Gibb. The contemporary vitality of their lush, urbane, disco grooves effectively figures the allure of the metropolis and high culture. Even though it is not, strictly speaking, a Bee Gees release, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which sold over 25 million copies, was the high point of the Bee Gees career, featuring eight tracks written by Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, six of which they performed and four of which “How Deep is Your Love,” "Stayin’ Alive," "Night Fever," and "If I Can’t Have You" (recorded by Yvonne Elliman) were consecutive #1 singles in early 1978—the same period in which Bee Gees songs recorded by younger brother Andy Gibb (“Love is Thicker than Water”) and Samantha Sang (“Emotion”) also rose to #1 on the singles charts. The soundtrack was the best-selling record of 1978 and of all time until the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982.