It’s not a coincidence that within minutes of watching “Saturday Night Fever” with my family the conversation turned into just when disco died. “It came and went so quickly,” my Dad recalled. “The early adopters were around for a while before it became really cool, but by the time you bought all the ridiculous shirts and all the records, it was already gone.”
Something like “Saturday Night Fever” then belongs to that black hole of movies that, regardless of their quality, became dated as soon as the fad they depicted vanishes completely. Its soundtrack is a collection of all the disco songs that have actually survived (and are tolerable) through the decades, and the fashions and attitudes, be they the big cars, bug hair or big collars, are a relic of a time that today just seems so alien.
And yet the reason above all why “Saturday Night Fever” succeeded and still somewhat succeeds today is in its title sequence. The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” plays as John Travolta struts down the street, and it seems to explain effortlessly that part of the ’70s cool was just the swagger in your step, the swivel of your hips and living moving as if the music was always playing.
Today the film represents the tentpole model for teenage stardom stories in the vein of something like “Flashdance.” A troubled and poor young teenager who happens to be a talented dancer/singer/artist enters a contest to win an arbitrary prize, and along the way they juggle relationships, a distant family that doesn’t understand him/her, an older sibling who is admirable but now seems lost and some sort of tragedy separate from all the montages and performance numbers.
This is precisely the format of “Saturday Night Fever,” but its improved by just the style with which it glamorizes these icons of ’70s culture. Director John Badham loves the low angle shot to show off hair, clothes and bodies during dance scenes and otherwise. The dance numbers are all handled minimally with full-bodied wide shots and long takes to show just how Travolta can really move. It also splashes obscene amounts of color in the frame and gets down and dirty itself in swift tracking shot close-ups as Travolta shimmies about the dance floor.
His moves in the King of the Floor scene are so absurd they must all have a corny name (the punching bag, the hair dryer, the Russian soldier, to make up a few), but I like the scene because disco is one of those rare dance styles, like the classical forms of tap, where the individual is often more impressive than the group, and these numbers feel almost like updates on the Fred Astaire favorites. Travolta makes these moves look simple, elegant and effortless.
It’s also fun in the sense that the dialogue is absurd. There are throw away lines that a modern audience must gawk at in their extreme racism, sexism and vulgarity. “Women have to choose to be either a nice girl or a cunt.” “Dream good, jerk off better.” “You make it with some girls, they think you gotta dance with them too.”
Travolta was already famous for his role as Vinnie Barbarino in “Welcome Back Kotter,” and he even had a part in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” but “Saturday Night Fever” made him a temporary superstar, landing him a dumbfounding Oscar nomination in the process. And it’s shocking, because Tony Manero is absolutely repellent, regardless of how many girls are hypnotically drawn to him. Did the New York guido attitude grow out of the disco ’70s or did the disco ’70s grow out of it? He shows absolute disdain for all of his lady callers, he oafishly eats with his mouth open, he nearly rapes his dance partner, allows another girl to be raped and ultimately watches his friend die in a hammy “Rebel Without a Cause” ending that just plain doesn’t work.
“Saturday Night Fever” belongs to the ages. It is a bad, cliche movie but arguably an essential one in understanding the full scope of American pop culture history.