Upon its 1977 debut, Saturday Night Fever was a worldwide phenomenon, showcasing to the world the sense of freedom and glamor that Disco heralded amidst a backdrop of urban blight. While the film portrays gritty characters and dialogue that may be objectionable by today’s standards, Alejandra Espasande, film archivist with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, writes about the indelible impact the film had on Disco bunnies and beyond.
Saturday Night Fever will be screened at Sleepless: The Music Center After Hours DISCO LIVES on April 6, 2018. Purchase tickets here.
Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night
By Alejandra Espasande, film archivist
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Considered a film time capsule of the 1970s Disco era, Saturday Night Fever (1977) was produced by the vision of Australian music mogul Robert Stigwood, who signed a million-dollar contract with actor John Travolta for a three-picture deal (including Grease, 1978 and Staying Alive, 1983) and entrusted the newcomer – a native of New Jersey, known at the time for his role of Vinnie Barbarino in the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter – with the role of Tony Manero, the king of the Disco dance floor. Upon its release in December 1977 – and that of a subsequent PG version in 1978 – the film immediately enjoyed smashing box-office success. The music – commissioned to the Bee Gees by Stigwood, who was also their manager – became one of the best-selling soundtrack records in history, and Travolta’s performance was rewarded with an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Over four decades later, the film has retained a sense of timelessness, a profound coming-of-age story that unveils the glitz of the commercial dance-genre film and explores the identity-shaping challenges of working class minority youth and their exclusion from society’s “mainstream” narratives of power and success. The script, written by Norman Wexler, known for his unorthodox street-wise approach to creating multi-layered characters, was an adaptation of the revolutionary – and fictionalized – New York Magazine article Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night, penned by British journalist Nik Cohn, who was inspired by characters from the Disco night scene of Brooklyn and his exploration of 2001 Odyssey, the discotheque where the film was actually shot. As noted by his opening lines, his piece was purposely focused on the excluded New Yorkers, the working class whose everyday lives were on the fringe of the chic Manhattan crowd.
These considerations are manifested from the very start when a long shot of the city of Manhattan, and its many skyscrapers, is seen from the perspective of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, connecting but also separating it from another geography into which the camera moves. That geography is Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the neighborhood of 19-year-old Italian-American Tony Manero, the archetype of the youth whose circumstances present more challenges than opportunity, and whose life swings between several realities, represented in specific spaces, with their corresponding states of mind. The despair manifested by the stifling traditions and demands of his dominant Italian-American family household, which disapproves of him in preference for his older sibling, disappears the moment he enters the dance floor of a local discotheque, where his fantasies and aspirations “to be somebody” materialize through the talent of his dance steps. In addition to the liberation experienced by Manero, the dance floor also plays a vital role in defining racial and economic lines of separation, shining a light on bigger societal divisions.
Manero, a macho magnet to women with not so perfectly correct attitudes, yet fragile and naïve, is charmed by Stephanie Mangano, a “refined” girl who is his match on the dance floor but, unlike Manero and his group of rowdy friends, has the sole yearning to make it out of Brooklyn and into the promised land of Manhattan. As she becomes aware of Manero’s lack of interest in education and the future, Mangano points to his mediocrity, “You’re a cliche. You’re nowhere. On your way to no place.” Nonetheless, she accepts his offer to team up in a dance contest organized by 2001 Odyssey, and during their rehearsal sessions, she becomes enthralled by the magic of his dancing.
The capacity of Manero to transform while dancing is crystallized during a mid-picture solo number that was not originally in the script until Travolta, who had trained over five months with choreographer Lester Wilson, demanded it in an effort to show the audience he could really dance and, therefore, turn the audience fully into Manero’s following. In this scene, Manero solidifies his rule of the dance floor with the ritual of his movements, transporting his tribe (the Disco dancers) into a communal ecstasy of joy where all can escape, if just for a moment, from their everyday realities through the perfection of Manero, the tribe’s chief.