Saturday Night Fever
Imagine West Side Story meets Clockwork Orange, has an illegitimate version of Rocky that grows up to become it's generations American Graffiti - All set to the music of The Bee Gees - Review by Eric Renderking Fisk
It's hard to justify having a review for "Saturday Night Fever" on The Fedora Chronicles until it's put into it's proper context. This movie is extremely dated - it's not just peppered with 1970's pop-culture, it IS a huge part of the 1970's pop-culture. And it feels very much like the musicals of the Golden Era - There is something too familiar about this movie for anyone who has ever seen any movie musicals that were made during the 1930's and 1940's. Saturday Night Fever has the all-too-used theme (or some might say cliché') about a clock-puncher by day - dancer/musician by night hero who has to win a "contest" that's a once in a life time chance to break into show business and a means at making a better life.
Satuday Night Fever also has plot elements that also a replay Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940's...
Folks tend to look back at this film as a bright spot during the time it was released while they grew up, filled with dancing, bright lights, loud music and witty dialog. But folks tend to forget that this isn't a happy film, it's a dark portrait of young adult night life that's full of profanity, nudity and sexuality, violence, chauvinism, racism, cowardice, betrayal with feelings of abandonment and an overwhelming feel of dread about the nature of humanity and the futility of striving to get ahead... and that's only if you're one of the people who are actually aiming for something better and haven't just caved in to the eventuality that life is as good as it's going to get and you acccept it for what it is... or heaven help you if you were oblivious to how bad your station is in life.
A commentator might be able to look at this movie, point to it and say that this was a major step in society's down-fall. It's hard to fight that argument when too many under-aged children saw the film and started acting out what they saw in school and at summer camp... But I digress.
[Keep in mind that this movie was released twice - first in it's Rated R version, and a Rated PG version that had most of the grim aspects cut out... with much of it's message and dark soul. I would debate that people who have wonderful memories of this film either only saw the tamed down version, or never saw it and are only talking about the album...]
The Cultural Phenomenon - The Album Overshadowed The Picture...
It's ironic that a movie that was a cynical look at and satire of pop-culture of the 1970's became one of the biggest pop-culture phenomenons of the 1970's - second only to the first chapter George Lucas released of his multi-part space-mythology.
These two films were released during a very jaded and cynical period of American history and people were desperate for a distraction. The United States was struggling with a floundering economy via a recession, corruption in Washington through several Presidential administrations, and because of the Cold War's proliferation of atomic weapons, a growing drug culture and pollution the future seemed very uncertain. Folks were desperate for a distraction... what disco music and night clubs provided for many young adults and those at lease wishing to feel younger.
Disco music at the time infiltrated every aspect of American life, you found it on the radio (some of it's synthetic beats and sounds found it's way to every genre including Country, and there were even disco versions of essential classical music scores.) It was in many commercials for things from fast-food to car dealerships. The genre' made careers for acts such as Donna Summer (and Diana Ross towards the end of her career...) ABBA, The Village People, The Jackson 5 (with the youngest boy, Michael going off on his own to make enormously successful albums such as "Off The Wall" and the album that shattered many of the records set by "Saturday Night Fever's" soundtrack - "Thriller.")
For a moment, let me just share with you folks when I first heard about this film. I was in Elementary School and at another table there were a couple of kids talking about the Album. It was one of the two albums everyone had to have - (the first being the soundtrack to that other movie I already mentioned... you know the one... John Williams Conducted...)
It's the first time I ever heard kids talk about a movie that wasn't "Star Wars." It's also the first (and I'm guessing the last) time I heard kids talking about the soundtrack to an album more then the actual movie. The album was mass-marketed and became a pop-culture phenomenon with copies flying off the shelves and heavily displayed in record store albums for months, if not for a whole year. Sadly, less then half of the songs on the album are actually listenable today... most of which were written and produced by The Bee Gee's - all but one they performed themselves.
With in that year after the soundtrack was release and under a heavy marketing campaign, the actual movie was released. Just as the album became more popular, the movie's popularity increased - as the movie's popularity increased, record sales soared again. "Saturday Night Fever" was a two-headed phenomenon that fed each other, and the rest of the music genre... You couldn't escape "Saturday Night Fever" - for a period of time it was everywhere, everyday of the week.
As for the Actual Movie Itself...
I've taken a long time to set up the review of the movie, to illustrate that at the time this motion picture wasn't just a movie, it actually became part of the culture of those years. It painted a very dark, bleak look at society - holding a mirror to society as a means of trying to make a statement through satire and metaphor... only to have those looking at the mirror mimicking what they saw.
John Travolta plays Tony Manero, a hip and slick stereotypical Italian living in Brooklyn, old enough to take care of himself while still living with his parents and supporting the family while working at a paint store. The Manero family is perhaps one of the first few dysfunctional families in cinema - a theme that plays to the audience who shares similar experiences. Tony's dad is an out-of-work construction worker while the union is on strike, his mother is a stay at home parent who progressively takes charge of the house hold as she dotes on Tony's brother from afar - Frank Jr. is a Catholic Priest, of whom his mother has hung their hopes on. Also living in the house is Tony's younger sister and grandmother who play scenery.
Tony works at the local hardware store, one of the places where he actually shines. His boss appreciates him and actually a better father-figure to Tony then his own dad, the customers like and appreciate him and at moments laugh with him about their ridiculous lives.
Now, obviously - unless you've been living on another planet or have never heard of "Saturday Night Fever" most of the action either takes place at the dance floor at the 2001 Space Odyssey Night Club, or in the dance studio where some of the characters learn their moves. - As another aside, there's some great irony about the night club's name "2001 Space Odyssey" and the fact that this film was made in 1976/1977 and the turn of the millennium is still more then two decades away, there's no future there. There's no future for anyone there at the "2001 Space Odyssey" night club for anyone besides the owner who must have been raking in the huge dollars...
Tony spends Friday and Saturday night there with his friends - together they call themselves "The Faces" - and essentially spend most of their time looking for non-committal sex, looking to get high and run everyone else down that's not as popular as they are.
Tony and his friends leave in their wake new depths of dysfunction and chaos - picking fights with rival gangs, reckless and dangerous driving and looking for quick way out of the complex problems that are the results of their actions or inactions, including drug use and unwanted pregnancy...
Tony's blissful arrogance and self-centeredness is shattered when Frank Jr. returns from the Catholic Church after abandoning his position as a Priest. Frank Jr. confides in Tony, explaining the reasons why he left is because of celibacy and no longer seeing Christ as anyone besides someone dying on a cross. With Frank Jr. no longer being "so good..." Tony figures that his tough parents will stop being so hard on him because now he doesn't look that bad. As Frank Jr. hangs out with his brother and his brother's friends, there are moments of clarity - when Frank Jr. has second thoughts about leaving the church (To paraphrase one of Tony's friends: "Father Frank... do you think The Pope can help my girlfriend get an abortion?" What other indication could there be to show that the community still needs spiritual guidance and moral roll models?) The most pivotal scene for Frank Jr. is when he's about to leave and gives Tony some advice that echo's what his boss at the hardware store said earlier: Tony has to do something more with his life, not allowing his parents or fate to choose for him - do something with his talents.
Simultaneously, Tony meets a fellow dancer - Karen Lynn Gorney’s "Stephanie Mangano" - an slightly older woman from the neighborhood. Through the stories she tells Tony about her life, she give him the impression that she's on the way up, that her life is becoming one of notoriety and recognition from a vast array of celebrities and stars of that era. She lectures Tony about how great life is across the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. She triggers something in Tony, a restlessness as he tries to figure out if he wants a better life like she has or if he should struggle to maintain the life he already has, despite the fact that he openly questions if what she tells him is total bunk and guff.
This also begins a dark love-triangle in the film - between Tony, Stephanie and Donna Pescow’s "Annette" - a former fling of Tony's who pushes the limits of her own embarrassment to try to permanently attach herself to Tony who mistreats her and speaks poorly about her and to her face. Personally, I can't help but feel bad for Pescow’s "Annette" - I'm at a loss at trying to explain why Tony dislikes her and holds her in such contempt... other then the fact that it's made clear earlier that she's the youngest of several sisters who are already married and she's clearly looking for a husband in him.
Tony wants Stephanie, but she doesn't want him... Annette wants something permanent with Tony but he doesn't with her... all the while Tony struggles looking for the perfect dance party for the films climatic dance contest that might bring notoriety for him and the chance for a better life... or at least a cash prize and a trophy.
It's the chance meeting with Stephanie and Frank Jr.'s peals of wisdom that cause Tony to begin his heroes journey that also causes inner conflict in himself and to put strain on the relationships with his friends and could be the cause of his mistreatment of Annette...
There are times when the movie becomes the work of an auteur director, Through out the main plot, the movie breaks into little vignettes about his relationships with his friends, their twisted, shallow and self centered philosophy, brutal violent conflicts with the local Hispanic gang - The Barracudas, and the explicit flings they have with the women they meet on the dance floor... book ended with montages of their world around them show the audience the gritty nature of their neighborhoods of their Anglo-ghetto.
The dance floor as a metaphor, as I wrote above there's "future" at the "2001 Space Odyssey" is nonexistent - it's a means of wasting away it's patron's youth rather then just being a means of some entertainment for the night. It's a means unto itself rather then being a brief means of escape.
The bridge as a metaphor as the boundary or figurative bridge between life and death, what separates the haves and the have-nots... it also seems to serve as a symbol of a lifeless Angel of Death, dealing death to those who disrespect it or treat it with carelessly by taking it's dangers too casually, the bridges here are held in reverence by Tony, as illustrated through a scene were Tony shares with Stephanie trivia about the bridge and why it's so important to him... there comes a point where Travolta might as well look into the camera and say "Hey, yo! Check it out... this here bridge is like a metaphor, you know? It's like in that book, you know... written my F. Scott Fitz-what's his face... yea.. Fitzgearld... that's the dude. You know how the warn down billboard of for Dr. T. J. Eckleburg - know the one I'm talking about - the dude who's eyes look over the Valley of Ashes where those lesser known characters of Gatsby's lives? And like, how that's a metaphor for God? Well this bridge here, you see... it's like a metaphor for something else, too, like Fate or something. That's like... so cool! This guy who wrote this is wicked smart... really, you should listen to him more. Well, that's what Mr. Kotter, my history teacher said."
All these elements that I've mentioned so far are brought together for the films dramatic and brutal climax.
Breaks The Mold It Cast...
With most these types of pictures, the "All Or Nothing" contest is an integral part of the movies climax and the hero almost always wins... happily ever after with everyone smiling as we fade out to the end credits. The main character learns something about himself in the end, grows up and show's the world around him that he really is a Somebody. We all recognize that story plot, it's been used countless times before, and several times since - like John Travolta's next movie "Grease" (The Car Race) and The Karate Kid a few years later.
Then there's Flashdance and Footloose during the 1980's. 1987's "Dirty Dancing" has a similar theme, Patrick Swayze's Johnny Castle returns in the final scene to take over the Camp Kellerman's going away ceremony for the guests and dances with Jennifer Grey’s "Frances 'Baby' Houseman" in front of everybody who's in shocked amazement... but not before Castle can stand up to his girlfriends father and says "Nobody puts baby in a corner." [As an aside, the only movie close to breaking Saturday Night Fever's theater ticket and soundtrack sales is "Dirty Dancing."] In Flashdance, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing - the main characters find redemption, validation and self worth through dance.
But, unlike the rest of the films with the similar theme/cliché - the climatic dance contest simply sets the stage for the films true climax with confrontations between Tony and his fate...
After Tony and his Faces Gang (could very easily be called "The Lost Boys" as a salute to Peter Pan's bunch who never want to grow up...) brutalize and humiliate The Barracuda's (Men and women,) he arrives at the night club on the night of the dance contest. During the dancing, there's a moment of genuine tenderness and affection between Tony and Stephanie that feels as if could have been the perfect ending to this movie. But the embrace is short-lived and the dance is over as the two eventually win.
But Tony gives up the prize to the real winners, a Hispanic couple who he believed danced better then he and Stephanie. He makes the point that nobody can be honest with him, the contest was rigged on his behalf and that winning this way is bitter herbs. There are moments that reveal to us that Tony could be redeemable, there's a glimmer of hope that he can have something in him that strives for something better - "good enough" just isn't good enough.
The movies true genuine climax comes after Tony leaves the night club in a fit of rage laced with both profanity and philosophy as he realized that "Everybody dumps on everyone else..." The scenes that follow is a cacophony of violence, betrayal and one or two sexual assaults that leave the audience stunned, which in-turn leads to reckless behavior during a cry for help from one of Tony's friends that leads to an accidental suicide... I'm trying really hard to be relevant in this review with out giving away the ending... but Travolta's line sums the climax of this film by simply answering the question as by the police detective if his friend meant to kill himself, Tony replies: "There's ways of killing yourself without killing yourself."
The film closes with Tony abandoning his friends by the side of the water under the bridge and heads off to exhaust his grief and to claim his destiny. It's a solitary walk down "The Yellow Brick Road" done in a final montage until he reaches Stephanie's apartment looking for solace, forgiveness, redemption and hope for his future. The movie ends with the two of them embracing with some issues left unresolved and the future of their relationship in question, if they can be more then just friends.
The credits roll... but not with the cast and crew, but the song credits... as if they were the most important element in the picture.
Legacy, Epitaph and Epilogue
"Saturday Night Fever's" egacy is that it's become the Disco generation's "American Graffiti" - people who were young adults during that era who went to disco clubs, mimicked the behavior and the dance moves the movie displays, and partook of everything from the drugs, sex and fashion can look back and say, "Yea, that's the way it was." It's a time capsule for those who were there, and for those who were too young at the time and wished they were.
But for it's epitaph and epilogue... Driving towards Boston on Route 2, just as you're entering the city of Cambridge and just before Alewife Station there was once a popular night club called "Faces." Perhaps the night club was named after the gang Mr. Travolta's character ran with in Saturday Night Fever, or named after the band Rod Stewart belonged to before he began his successful solo career.. I don't know much about "Faces" history, other then the fact that he had already been closed for a long time before 1987 when I came down to live in the area for the first time.
Faces has been closed all this time, it's Art Deco style sign is still up and the building itself remains mostly intact but becomes more dilapidated over time.. According to some, the night club folded because of the high crime of the area, others say it's because it caused nightmares on the road due to patrons leaving to drive home drunk. Some sites say that it's virtually the same in side right down to the bar, furniture, dance floor and lights, others say that it's just a burned out shell of it's former self after a fire. Others have speculated that the nigh club is actually cursed... perhaps nobody knows except the property owner and those who were actually there at the time.
In an era when ever available space is utilized to it's maximum potential, and space that's not available is coaxed into modern usability by clear cutting, land filling, bulldozing and demolition, renovations or new construction; "Faces" is still there. It seems odd that the building continues to stand exactly the way it was the night it closed forever. Perhaps the only reason why it's there is because it stands as a monument to say "Disco Was Here" and those who have fond memories can't bare to see it torn down. It's a symbol now of the decade's decay and decadence.
But for me, I think it symbolizes the era and how the period of decadence fed on itself and it's a metaphor for what the era of heavy drug use and promiscuity did to America's youth at the time. It's also a testament on American Culture and how fleeting audience's adoration is. Something new comes along, it's the end all and be all of Pop Culture, it's what all the "in crowd" is into for a time... then just as rapidly as it became popular it becomes passé, people abandon the almost new for something newer. That's "Saturday Night Fever's" epitaph, for the music genre, the motion picture itself and the other fads and fashions that came with it...
Just as it has existed for ages before, "Satuday Night Fever" lives on, obviously not exactly the way as depicted in the motion picture. Young adults still go out on Saturday night to live life to it's fullest, pushing limits and boundaries to see how much they can get away with and to see how much they can experience. The clothes are different, the music has changed, and the most of the locations where kids go have moved or have been altered. The only consistent is change, and the boundaries keep moving back.
"Fever" existed decades before then the dawn of that particular music genre, Saturday Night Fever was there before The New Yorker Magazine article that inspired this movie, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" a fictionalized account of the night life scene written for The New Yorker by Nik Cohn. It'll continue to go on for young adults as they past through that phase in their lives, and it will go on as we pass into maturity and try to reach back into the past hoping to reclaim a part of our misspent youth.
Inside the Disco Inferno - Thirty years ago, a mostly fictional article in this magazine led to the movie Saturday Night Fever. But the pictures that ran with that story couldn’t have been more real." By Adam Sternbergh
American Experience | Zoot Suit Riots Learn about the controversy surrounding the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles, 1942. From PBS.
Zoot Suit Riots - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of riots that erupted in Los Angeles, California during World War II, between sailors and soldiers stationed in the city ...