A film review by Craig J. Koban
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
30th Anniversary Retrospective
1977, PG, 118 mins.
John Travolta / Stephanie: Karen Lynn Gorney / Bobby C:
Barry Miller / Annette: Donna Pescow / Joey: Joseph Cail
/ Double J: Paul Paps
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is the ultimate male pornographic fantasy film. It has a central character that is young, handsome, and worshipped by his friends. He has a cocky and suave bravado and oozes cool charisma wherever he goes. Most importantly, when he struts into a dance nightclub, he is transformed into a swinging, hip shaking, prancing god. Men want to be like him and women simply want him. During a time of hedonism gone wild and of rapid, consequence-free promiscuity in a pre-Aids America, it’s no wonder that the “hero” of FEVER was so easily idolized.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER seems to forever fall under the moniker of that Disco movie. That limited label has always been somewhat misleading to me. Yes, FEVER was a milestone work in the sense that it was released at a time that perfectly captured the essence of American pop culture in transition. The harder edge rock 'n roll sensibilities were bringing listeners down during the tumultuous decade, and alongside such debacles as Watergate and The Vietnam War, people were ripe for a free-spirited change.
Disco – albeit for a short time – offered that cathartic release for people. It was simply an underground, New York phenomenon pre-FEVER, but when the film exploded on the silver screen the cult of Disc hit mainstream America. Disco was every bit as simplistic, innocent, and inoffensive as the rock of yesteryear, but it paradoxically reiterated a time of drug and sexual experimentation.
FEVER surely defined its period as well as any other film has. Yet, the film always seems to never receive credit beyond being a travelogue into a period of American culture. Calling FEVER simply a Disco film is restraining; the film emerged as something far edgier and darker than many lay filmgoers remember. It is an urban tragedy much in the same vein that REBEL WITHOUT A CASE was for its generation. Like REBEL, FEVER offers up an intimate and, at times, shocking snapshot of one young man’s desire to get out of the desolation of his unsympathetic family life and the depravity of his fellow friends.
FEVER’S main protagonist, Tony Manero, lives a life where everyday, mundane concerns eat away at him. The monotony of his relationship with his mother and father weigh him down considerably. His parents consider him to be a selfish loser without purpose in life and they constantly berate him to be something more. Tony has no means of supporting himself fully so he lives at home with family, has no car, and apparently no future. He ekes through his days working at a local paint store for a meager paycheck in a job he finds equally unfulfilling. His friends around him are hellish stooges who habitually do drugs, smoke, drink, and get involved in small gang warfare. Tony, in essence, has a one-way ticket to Nowhere’s Ville. He has no serious aspirations or plans. He gets by on being an aggressively hostile womanizer, a foul-mouthed racist, and an angry teen. This all makes for a rather depressing character drama.
Yet, when Tony leaves his depressing daily life and blows his weekly paycheck at a local discotheque (the wonderfully named 2001 Odyssey), he is the undisputed king. When he confidently staggers into the club, all semblances of his lackluster job, his belittling family, and his going-nowhere existence has all but evaporated. While in the Odyssey, he goes beyond being a cynical delinquent that occupies a world of racial tensions in the local community and the equally rocky relationship with his family. When Saturday night comes Tony and his other deadbeat, hooligan friends squander their Friday paychecks on flashy shirts, gold medallions, and platform shoes and transform into the object of every woman’s fantasy. Everything they desire is at the club: endless amounts of booze, drugs, and armloads of woman that will – at a moment’s notice – drop everything they’re doing for a one night stand in the back seat of a car. No doubt, when the “fever” of the night grabs a hold of Tony and his companions, they become an unparalleled macho force.
FEVER works with such an simple efficiency at portraying the duplicitous lives of its characters. It so deceptively easy for us to engage in hero worship for Tony and his goons. They are not quite malicious and hardened criminals, but they are street wise and pessimistic enough. Their existence seems destined for self-implosion and disaster. The grind of their lives all but is put on hold when they stroll through the Disco dance floor and dance the Saturday night’s away. The film wisely is able to show both the attractive allure of the Disco world (who wouldn’t want to be regarded as a dance king that women want to have sex with?), but it also reflects a shadier, darker underbelly.
The Disco offers a form of release and escape for Tony and his buddies, but it also inevitably underscores the emptiness of their lives. With no apparent hopes for college or a career, and with night after night of drinking and dancing their problems away, the club becomes a temporary dumping ground for their ills. The enter and leave it as aimless slackers, and deep down, they kind of know this, which underscores the film’s tragic undercurrent. The source of their joy later becomes a source of their shame and pain.
This is why FEVER is so far removed from being a cute and cuddly bit of film nostalgia for a once popular music and dance form. This was not a film where the Disco numbers were placed redundantly in scenes for effect. Instead, FEVER defined a new type of musical genre where there where many dance numbers that did not involve characters breaking into song. The film was a perfect marriage of story and music and the songs carried the film from scene to scene. FEVER most certainly ushered in the short-lived Disco revolution and launched a fashion and cultural lifestyle like no other film did to its time, but it still remains an ageless entertainment in the sense that its themes behind the music are so universal.
FEVER has been described as being severely dated by many critics, but the smart ones are able to look beyond its façade of its disco aesthetic and see that the film is as relevant as ever, mainly because it deals with wounded and troubled youth that have no sense of respect for themselves and the world around them. They lack purpose and a sense of self-actualization. Tony is a poster boy for teen, working class heel that does not give a hoot about anything around him. It is through his growing realization that his life is empty that acts as a catalyst for his growing awareness that he needs to transcend his working class roots. He slowly understands that the source of all of his excessive desires and frivolous pursuits is the place that he loves the most: the Disco club.
Beyond its hard-hitting story and importance on the culture of the time, FEVER is also a watershed film in the way it made a 23-year-old TV star a national cult icon. The film opens with a strut where we see the bell-bottomed, polyester-shirted, platform shoe wearing John Travolta confidently walking through urban Brooklyn. It’s one of the great character introductions of the movies, as if to proclaim that Travolta was now laying his claim to the movie world and pronouncing his arrival.
Travolta was no stranger to fame pre-FEVER, as he became a teeny-bopper sensation playing the brain-fried sweat hog Vinnie Barbarino on TV’s WELCOME BACK KOTTER. Yet, when he made the transition to FEVER and when he strutted through the streets with a sly and sultry grin, an affectionately cocky physicality, and a wide-eyed energy, Travolta transcended his TV star status and emerged as the James Dean of the 1970’s. He became the personification of every thing that was cool about the subculture of Disco youths, but his stirring portrayal as the layered and multi-faceted Tony Manero was not only one of the integral cinematic rebels of all-time, but the best and most thankless performance of his career.
The film found inspiration in the 1976 NEW YORK magazine article TRIBAL RITES OF THE NEW SATURDAY NIGHT. Written by British author Nik Cohn, a new comer to the US and a relative stranger to the world of Disco, the article tried to accurately portray the lives of Brooklyn teenagers in the early days of the Disco craze. Once considered a meticulous and absorbing true-live account, the article has recently been cited by the author himself as a complete and utter fabrication from beginning to end. Nevertheless, Paramount studios secured the film rights for $90,000 and Norman Wexler was brought on to fashion a script.
The film had a somewhat troubling pre-production, so much to the point that many doubted whether or not the film would actually be made. John G. Avildson was initially signed on to direct the film, seeing that his last effort, 1976’s ROCKY, was the sleeper hit of the decade and walked away with a BEST PICTURE Oscar. However, Avildson’s take on Wexler’s screenplay was decidedly different and he desired to soft-pedal the material beyond its darker undercurrent (which, in hindsight, would have been the undoing of the film, which is what ultimately hurt the film’s sequel, STAYING ALIVE, ironically written and directed by Sylvester Stallone).
Trying to take a page out of ROCKY, Avildson wanted to make Tony Manero a respected and liked man of the streets, but his creative differences with the material caught up with him and he was abruptly let go weeks before the production was to begin. John Badham – who had only one other feature film under his belt – was brought in as a replacement and he was given the daunting task of prepping a film with no leading lady cast and no production locations finalized. It's amazing, in pure hindsight, how FEVER emerged as such an original vision. When the film was released on December 7, 1977 is was a critical and box office smash, making nearly $300 million dollars worldwide.
As the story opens we are quickly introduced to Tony as the best of everything he does: he’s the best looking, best dancing, best womanizing, and overall most assured 19-year-old around. He works days at a local paint store that is so low rent that – when they run out of a color for a customer – Tony has to sneak away to the competition to buy the paint and then quickly return it to the store to sell to the customer. His mind is not completely in the job, but it remains a means to an end. Its small salary affords him the opportunity to go every Saturday Night to the Odyssey where he is the one that is in complete command and control…that is until he has no money left and is back on the streets and the cycle repeats itself.
At the Odyssey, Tony is a kid that’s revered. The same can’t be said of his life at home. His Italian parents don’t hate him, but they don’t respect his self-indulgent, pleasure seeking lifestyle. They do respect Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr., who is training to be a Catholic Priest. Tony’s mother wishes that he could be more upstanding like Frank Jr. and his father seems to have great difficulty in respecting Tony period. There is a funny opening scene at the family dinner table where a spat breaks out during which many members of the family slap each other upside their heads. After Frank Sr. hits Tony, he amusingly lashes back, “Don’t touch the hair. I spent a lot of time on it…and ya hit it.” The scene highlights the way life coalesces between comedy and misery.
Tony does escape his family’s misery by his Saturday night ritual offered by the Odyssey. The film portrays his preparation for his Disco nights with fetishistic camera work akin to that of an army solder getting ready for a mission. Tony has every facet of his clothing ensemble laid out on his bed and he blow-dries his hair with painstakingly vain and specific brush strokes. There’s a caged, sexual energy to this montage where Tony’s prep for a night on the prowl is done with slow pans and meticulous reveals. One shot shows him stripped down to his tight underwear posing and admiring himself in a mirror. The film revels in these details and the effect is crucial in showcasing how the Disco lifestyle forges the passions and drives of its characters.
When Tony leaves home, he is free to room the streets, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and dance and make out with as many anonymous woman as possible. His friends are portrayed as pathetic losers who hinge on every word and action of Tony. He is undoubtedly their leader, often making decisions as to when to drop acid and how long any of them can have sex in the car. Equally distasteful is Tony’s feelings towards women in general. His love for woman is from his loins, not his heart. He treats them less as delicate creatures to be respected and adored and more as faceless sex objects that facilitate his nocturnal desires. He can’t bring himself to love women because he can’t bring himself to value them. Women are one of two things in his perversely narrow worldview: They are, by his words, either “nice” or “cunts".
Life throws Tony a curveball when he meets a beautiful older woman in the club, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney). She’s a great dancer, which immediately attracts Tony to her. She, of course, is immediately icy and distant with him. When he eventually hooks up with her and takes her out for coffee, she reveals herself to be an elitist snob who goes out of her way to dismisses Tony’s life and place her’s on a sterling pedestal. She tells him, "You live with your parents, you hang with your buddies and on Saturday nights you burn it all off at 2001 Odyssey. You're a cliché. You're nowhere, goin' no place.'' Tony sort of dismisses her comments, but deep down they resonate with him. If anything, Stephanie opens up some deep wounds. Underneath his well-coiffed exterior lies a vulnerable and sensitive man who knows his life is a sham. He just needs to accept it first.
Tony then finds himself in a position that any sexist pig does not want to be in: a love triangle. He develops feelings for Stephanie, but does not know how to deal with them, seeing as he can't disseminate love from lust half of the time. Then there is Annette (Donna Pescow), a flirtatious girl that loves Tony outright and directly and indirectly tells him that throughout the film. Stephanie represents a girl of class – at least outwardly – whereas Annette is a floozy with a tender heart. Tony likes Annette because she’s a good dancer, but he has no desire to be with her, which frustrates Annette. One of the film’s other gloomy subplots shows Annette feebly trying to score with Tony (one moment where she attempts to pick him up by showing him condoms is a belittling and pathetic scene). Annette is as lost of a spirit as Tony, but Stephanie is not nearly as sophisticated and put together as she claims to be. As the film progresses Tony grows to understand that she is essentially just a lower class urban girl that outwardly is trying to be refined. She is an odd reflection of him and he sees that and begins to yearn for the lifestyle she has: one of respect and dignity.
As their relationship grows, so does Tony’s developing sense of self-respect. Both of them help each other. Tony helps Stephanie deal with her own issues and she helps him grow to want more in life. They decide to work together to win a big $500 prize at the Odyssey’s dance contest, but the “big final number” is not as important as the interplay between the two leading up to it. There is a quiet and tender moment where the two of them gaze at the Brooklyn Bridge and Tony affectionately lectures her on every factual aspect of the bridge. The bridge is a symbol of his desire to cross paths and make something of himself in the city, instead of being a man-whore wasting his life away. Lesser screenplays would have had the obligatorical sex scene here.
FEVER does a great job balancing comedy and drama. Re-watching it now the one aspect of it that still is fresh is its frank and brutal honesty at times. Tony is likeable, but he is undeniably a crude racist (he flaunts ethnic slurs around with his buddies to unseemly levels). His treatment of women is equally appalling, and a later scene where he fails at making a half-hearted attempt at raping Stephanie is revolting. Then there is another very difficult scene to digest where Tony’s friends, one by one, proceed to rape the drunken Annette. Tony does not partake in the sexual abuse, but when his friends are done he puts salt on Annette’s wounds by asking her if she’s finally satisfied with herself. Oddly enough, it is the unsavory material in FEVER that separates itself away from other films of teen angst. The time period and culture is different, but it still feels current.
The most astounding and memorable aspect of the film is Travolta himself, who gave the best performance of his career playing Tony. He was given the insurmountable task of making a lecherous jerk into a wounded and sympathetic figure. The scenes where Travolta plays Tony with hedonistic glee are strong, but his best moments are where he grows to accept his vulnerability and place in the world. His proudest moment occurs when he and Stephanie wrongfully win the Odyssey’s prize money. He knows one other couple was more deserving, but since he’s the ruler of the Odyssey and the judges would always vote Italian over any other race, he flips. His awakening to his own prejudices has a moving sense of sad melancholy. When he comes to grips with the futility of his life and desperately clings to Stephanie and understands – for the first time in his life – what it means to respect him and another woman, Travolta plays these scenes with such graceful, underplayed sincerity. His Best Actor nomination was much deserved for the film.
Then there is the film’s music and dancing, the other important content that has made FEVER an iconic movie experience. The film made Travolta a household name and launched his career, but it also made the soundtrack of the Bee Gees one of the most popular and best selling ever. FEVER is notable for the way it – for the first time – engaged in cross promotion. The Bee Gee’s single helped launched the film and the film subsequently helped promote their album, which sold an astounding 20 million copies (it would take Michael Jackson’s THRILLER to top it in sales).
Accompanying this is the film’s terrifically realized dance numbers, filmed in a hazy, cinéma vérité style by Badham. Who can forget the first shot of Travolta in his immortal white polyester suit, which single-handled launched a new clothing revolution? And then there is also Travolta’s one-man dance number, for which he trained nine months at mastering. Largely edited with master shots (at Travolta’s own insistence), it would become one of the most dazzling, lively, and spirited dance numbers of all-time. Watching it with Travolta’s pitch perfect timing and cat-like vitality and tenacity, you become immersed in it by seeing what real star power is all about. Travolta certainly became one with this sequence.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER seems to have gained unnecessary notoriety over the last thirty years as an innocuous period film that showcased an innocent dance and music culture that many now consider laughably insignificant. The movie has certainly dated and most definitely deserves recognition for epitomizing the heyday of Disco. It ushered in a lifestyle and set trends. Yet, the film remains sort of timeless from the perspective of how it never sugarcoats its basic story of lowlifes from the streets of Brooklyn who overcome their lower class, downtrodden status and become the masters of the Disco clubs. And at the heart of it all is the soulful and layered performance by the then young John Travolta who made his Tony Manero a tragic figure in an urban morality play. Like James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Travolta forged a similar youth character that grew disillusioned with his sense of the world and how he placed himself in it. FEVER deals with issues of simple universality, like coming to understand the emptiness of one’s existence and how to come to grips with self-destructive and selfish behaviour. Three decades later, watching the film again reiterates my feelings that FEVER is not just a Disco musical, but one with its clear finger on the pulse of its well realized and flawed personas. It is the film’s haunting darkness and sense of urban and moral decay that are its most long-standing and memorable elements.
Oh…and it does have Travolta in those trendsetting polyester suits strutting and dancing with a feverous intensity. Those scenes stick out too.