1977 was one of those years in cinema where iconic films would fall quicker than a Premier League footballer after a foul and there’s lots of obvious films to talk about (and this site does just that) but Saturday Night Fever is a film that will probably slip from the eyes of many a retrospective on ‘Geek’ sites even though it’s among one of the finest films about young working class kids in America having fun, which here means doing drugs, getting drunk, shagging and of course, dancing.
Best known for launching the international career of John Travolta, and of course the Disco sounds of the Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever was directed by John Badham, one of American cinema’s most underrated directors who also directed Blue Thunder, one of my all-time favourite films and like many a director from the 70’s and 80’s is now reduced to directing TV shows to earn a living which is a pity for a man who made in my mind one of the great working class youth films with Saturday Night Fever. Based upon a 1976 newspaper article detailing the then new and not very well known Disco scene, the film tells the story of Tony Manero (Travolta) as he struggles in a dead-end shit job making enough money to live for the weekend where he becomes like a god to those others in the scene who look up to Manero due to his dancing talent and of course, his looks.
That of course has pretty much been the life of teenagers since the ‘teenager’ came into being in the 1950’s. Teens will find a scene that suits them, provides an escape from the crushing, depressing mundane nature of life while finding a way to become something special away from stacking shelves or running odd-jobs as Tony is doing when we first meet him in the film. Saturday Night Fever follows in the line of films like Rebel Without A Cause or American Graffiti in terms of telling a story about the trials of being young. What makes Saturday Night Fever so good is that Badham doesn’t shirk from making the life of Tony and his friends look grubby, even when the disco lights are shining everything looks a bit worn, even seedy (at this point Disco was still very much an underground scene) that you feel part of it. The language, the slang, the mannerisms of all involved all right painfully true so that even if you don’t understand New York slang, you understand it having been a teenager (or are one) yourself.
It’s this authenticity tied in with a fine script/acting and excellent direction that made Saturday Night Fever a classic film. The soundtrack made it a global phenomenon that eclipsed the film to such an extent the film was edited down to a more ‘family friendly’ (all the swearing and sex were edited out) version which meant the film was neutered of its energy and power to become essentially just an advert for the soundtrack album. In fact it’s worth splitting off the film and soundtrack as most people today probably only think of Travolta throwing shapes on the dance floor to the disco beat of the Bee Gees when thinking of the film. It is somewhat sad that Badham’s gritty, realistic vision of working class kids finding themselves in a scene has been reduced to people singing along to the Bee Gees having drunk one WKD too many
Saturday Night Fever lives on now as something more than it was ever intended. It is now Barry Gibb singing songs at Glastonbury while stewards and audience dance in time, but at the root is a film that doesn’t hold back. Tony isn’t a nice guy. He’s relatable only in that he’s cool and talented but would you want to really be someone so flawed and here’s the beauty of Travolta’s performance; you don’t care. Tony is aspirational and because of this he can see a route out of the mundane routine and the small world he inhabits but he’s had to ruin lives in order to get to where he wants to be. If the film were made in the 21st century Tony would have little or no personality flaws, but here Badham and Travolta bare all of Tony’s ugly side for all to see, and yes they do present a sliver of hope that he’ll get better but this is Hollywood trying to be as real as it can rather than just selling fantasy.
So this is a film of real gravitas which has been trivialised over the decades because the perception of the film now isn’t what the film actually is, and I suggest trying out watching it without thinking too much of the four decades of cultural baggages the film trails behind it. You may be surprised at what you find.