Saturday Night Fever (1977) dir. John Badham
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gomey, Donna Pescow, Barry Miller
Thirty plus years after the fact, there’s much to regard in “Saturday Night Fever” and much reproach as well. The film which absolutely defines the disco-era does mostly everything right to transcend the pop culture fad which made it a success in 1977. Writer Norman Wexler and hired hand director John Badham seem to have a unique awareness of the film's time and place and as such manage to deconstruct the era through the singularity of its main character.
Tony Manero (John Travolta) is a typical 19 year old working class Bronx neighbourhood kid. Emotionally immature, underachiever who enjoys the company of his fellow underachieving friends. He freely admits he works at the paint shop so he can spend all his money on Saturday nights at 2001, the local nightclub where he’s the king of club, picking up women with his impeccable disco dancing skills.
When he starts hanging out with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gomey), a sophisticated older woman whom he pines after as a dance partner, a new world is opened up to him. Through Stephanie, Tony sees a future and goals to achieve and an integrity to his passion for dance. While the film moves towards a dance competition at 2001, the film is about Tony’s struggle to escape the stunting activities of his friends and his depressed disapproving father and find the ambition to succeed in life and grow into a real man.
Thirty years later it's still the dance sequences and club scenes which energize the film. On Blu-Ray the multicoloured, glitzy, reflective nightclub scenes burst out of the screen like a pop-up book. Disco has long since passed its time wearing the scarlet letter, and whether you like disco music or not the Bee Gees music pump up these scenes with maximum energy. The choreography is electric and hypnotic. Take the first club scene which ends with the familiar group dance, the hustle. The sequence isn’t announced with a sudden change in music or camera angle, it evolves and grows as more people join in, eventually taking over the whole dance floor. John Badham directs the scene like a dream sequence, floating the camera over the heads of the actors and through billows of dry ice smoke. And his gentle dissolve to Tony’s bedroom the next day slowly brings us back to Tony’s reality.
“Saturday Night Fever” is entirely Travolta’s film. Going through the supporting credits, none of the other key players went on to careers even remotely close to Travolta’s - in many ways to a fault. The scenes with Tony and his boys carousing around town are hampered by the often atrocious performances from his pals. At home, Tony's relationship with the father and mother are never adequately realized because of the base and stereotypical dramatization of the working class Italian-American family. The famous dinner time where Tony eats his dinner with a towel wrapped around his clean disco shirt is humourous for some, but for me the exaggerated blockhead performances are like nails on a chalkboard.
The most endearing relationship in the film is Tony and his brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar), the former priest who returns whom to the disappointment of his family. There’s genuine love and emotion in those scenes, which unfortunately get wrapped up midway through the picture.
The third act is hit and miss. The dance competition is well written, with Tony not accepting his win and loathing the bigoted attitude against the Puerto Rican team. This sets Tony’s frustration with his friends and his neighbourhood over the edge. Unfortunately the same can’t said with the treatment of Annette, the innocent hanger-on who just wanted some attention. She gets gang raped in the car to the amusement of Tony’s friends, an especially cruel and misogynistic scene which always makes me a little sick watching it. While this scene may have worked in the second act, where it stands in the final film the assailants go unpunished for the crime, which leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Nonetheless, cinema history seems to have glossed over these failings and crowned it an era-defining film. So be it.
"Saturday Nigh Fever" is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment