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Saturday Night Fever

1983: SUMMER OF NUB supplement: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)

I was born in the ‘70s. Between you and me, it was a week after JAWS came out. So I don’t remember the release of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, or Disco Demolition Night, I was busy with other shit. Mister Rogers, STAR WARS, Popeye cartoons, learning to tie my shoes, etc.

So growing up there was this idea of “the seventies” that was really funny. Ha ha, they had bellbottoms, they listened to disco, the movies had wah wah guitars. A big joke. The high-pitched Bee Gee vocals, white polyester suits, light up floors and dance moves of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, as parodied in AIRPLANE!, on Sesame Street and elsewhere, were part of that impression.

But when I was a teenager, hip hop samples opened a path to P-Funk, and 99 cent records at Goodwill introduced me to Innervisions and Headhunters. Film appreciation led me to SHAFT, SUPER FLY, DOLEMITE and THE MACK (with a side order of TAXI DRIVER and all that). Suddenly “the seventies” weren’t as much of a joke in my mind, they were becoming a legendary period. But disco still seemed like some bullshit. As smooth jazz was to jazz, disco was to funk, I thought. Still kind of do, to some extent.

At some point, though, I stumbled across and bought the record Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk by Meco. I still have it, along with his Wizard of Oz record, competing disco versions of the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS theme by Gene Page and Geoff Love’s Big Disco Sound, and other stuff along those lines. It made me  (and still makes me) laugh to hear these familiar theme songs about space adventures and alien contact merged with thumping disco beats and overproduced strings. Especially when I was that age I had a tendency to get into something ironically, then start to gain a sincere appreciation for it until I realized I actually liked it, like Romy and Michele “making fun of” PRETTY WOMAN. These are corny novelty records for sure, they’re fad chasers. But the overblown studio polish of the genre becomes a benefit when applied to an idea as goofy as “the Imperial March, but danceable.” Skilled studio musicians applying their hard-earned craft to an absurd idea that make me smile. I have to admit I like it (though funk or jazz versions of movie themes are almost always better, I collect those too).

Somewhere in there I got a little more interested in understanding disco. I saw some documentary on cable that talked about it as an underground movement, and a largely gay subculture, birthed in private dance parties, with music primarily by Black artists. I finally got that disco was not SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and the Bee Gees – SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and the Bee Gees were an offshoot of disco as it exploded in popularity, started to seep into places it was never designed for, and grew into a different thing. (And the massive success of the movie and its soundtrack – the most successful album in pre-Thriller music history, and biggest soundtrack until The Bodyguard – propelled it so far it burned out.) In terms I could relate to, it was that point when Vanilla Ice was on the top of the charts and Barney Rubble was rapping on Fruity Pebbles commercials. Or at least that’s how I understood it.

So I watched SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER with some skepticism, but also surprise. First of all, I thought it was good. Not a joke – a gritty, sweaty, working class New York City character drama that had some dancing in it because that’s what the one thing the protagonist knows how to shine at. The Bee Gees songs were still a joke to me, but how can you really deny them? I mean, what would the movie be without them? Also they got chumps like me by including Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” and David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain” – classical music gone disco is just as goofy as movie themes. I love it.

(Note: Typing that inspired me to put on the “Fifth of Beethoven” album, and I noticed my copy still has a price tag for 80 cents from the Goodwill Bric-a-brac section.)

Director John Badham has already come up twice in my summer of 1983 retrospective, having directed both BLUE THUNDER and WARGAMES. The very definition of a journeyman director – he prefers to credit his films as “A John Badham Movie” – but this seems to have been made with some passion. It’s is his second film (following THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS), a job he picked up after producer Robert Stigwood dumped John G. Avildsen (ROCKY), reportedly the same day he got his Oscar nominations.

In 2019 Badham was on Mick Garris’ podcast Post-Mortem (because his followup to this was the 1979 version of DRACULA), and his explanation of how the movie came about really surprised me. John Travolta was a sitcom star, not a movie star, but he had starred in Grease on stage, and Stigwood wanted to make a movie of that. But they couldn’t start filming for a while because they had to wait for a window in Olivia Newton-John’s touring schedule. They thought it would be smart to find another movie for Travolta to star in first, “to introduce him to the world of movies,” and decided to option a New York magazine article about a disco dancer from Brooklyn. (More on that later.)

If this was just supposed to be a quickie practice run killing time before GREASE then it’s funny how undeniable Travolta’s movie star juice is the moment you see him, just walking down the street. Well, you can’t really call it walking. It can only be called strutting. But it’s a preposterous amount of swag.

One of the articles I read said that Badham originally shot the feet walking with a double, and Travolta was furious and made him redo it with him. So he knew what the fuck he was doing. So many things about the character of Tony Manero are encapsulated in this famous strut: his rhythm, his physical grace, his charisma, his arrogance, his self seriousness, his obsession with his self image (confirmed by the attention he pays to shoes and shirts in the store windows he passes). He swings his black-leather-jacket-clad shoulders and arms to and fro, bouncing along that sidewalk, eyes narrowed like he expects to be worshipped but wants to stay casual about it. Every movement of every muscle, every chest hair popping out under his gold chain, between the triangular points of his red polyester collar, seem to say “What the fuck are you looking at?”

The only sign of weakness is the two times he tries to follow women and they ignore him or roll their eyes. But the more interesting detail is the can of paint he’s carrying the whole time because he’s on the clock at the hardware store, sent out to get a particular color they ran out of for a demanding customer.

The movie is really not as much about the disco lifestyle as later movies like 54 or even THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO. I didn’t even notice any cocaine in it. It’s more about the shitty life of this 19-year-old joe blow and his dipshit friends, and how on Saturday nights they escape into the magical fantasy world of the club, where they are gods. Well, really most of them are the entourage of a god, or at least Moses. It’s pointed out that the dance floor parts for Tony like the Red Sea. His buddies don’t even dance that much, they mostly sit at a table, or take turns bringing girls to the backseat of the car they all came together in.

The rest of the week Tony is stressing about his family – his dad Frank Sr. (Val Bisoglio, LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT) thinks he’s a loser piece of shit, everyone in the family is always sniping at each other and smacking each other. There’s a scene where Tony comes to dinner wrapped in a sheet to protect his shirt from spaghetti spillage and is deeply offended that his dad hits him in the hair. It’s funny but also sad that this family seem incapable of spending a few minutes together without arguing and fighting over every stupid little thing.

Dad and Mom (Julie Bovasso, MOONSTRUCK) are always telling Tony he should be more like his older brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar, INVASION U.S.A., FRESH), the pride of the family because he’s a Roman Catholic priest. So it’s a little satisfying when Frank Jr. comes home to tell them he quit the priesthood.

The relationship between the brothers is about the warmest thing in the movie. Tony is the only one in the family who’s accepting of Frank Jr.’s choice, and Frank Jr. is the only one to respect Tony’s talent as a dancer. He goes to the club with him, a night that includes fielding religious queries from Tony’s nerdiest friend Bobby C (Barry Miller, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED), who wants permission from the Pope for an abortion so he can get out of marrying his pregnant girlfriend. Frank makes it clear to Tony that he’s sincerely impressed by his dancing, but it’s in the sad context of cutting out early because this just isn’t his scene.

One of the most interesting characters is Annette (Donna Pescow, JAKE SPEED), who seems to have known and had a crush on Tony forever, but he tries to avoid dancing with her and barely gives her the time of day. She makes me think of the minor PURPLE RAIN character Jill, who is tragically ignored by The Kid. Annette does convince Tony to be her partner in an upcoming dance contest, but at the rehearsal space he sees this older woman Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney, All My Children) he’s been amazed by at the club but who ignores him worse than he ignores Annette. It’s one of those cinematic situations where the dude is aggressively bothering a woman and you think, “That’s right, you tell him” every time she tells him to go fuck himself but then he wears her down and they start dating. Movie women can only fend off creeps for so long before they become charmed by them.

The scenes where Tony and Stephanie get to know each other, like when they go out for coffee, are pretty funny. They’re from different generations and worlds and he’s not very good at seeming like he ever knows what she’s talking about. She works at a talent agency and is always mentioning the celebrities she’s met, and he tries to make fun of her for name-dropping but half the time he doesn’t even know who the people are.

Practicing for the dance contest gives some structure to the movie, but it’s more episodic than plot-driven. Lots of odd little encounters and minor characters in this world. There are scenes with Fran Drescher as a dancer named Connie (actually having a less extreme accent than the other characters) and DIE HARD 2’s Robert Costanzo as a customer at the hardware store. The DJ at the club is Monti Rock III of Disco-Tex & His Sex-O-Lettes, who do not have any songs on the soundtrack.

Though the movie seems built around the six Bee Gee songs, Badham hadn’t even heard of the band until postproduction, when Stigman gave him the demos and told him to use them. Travolta said he was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs. So “Stayin’ Alive” fitting together with “Superstition” in mashups might not be a coincidence.

Just like THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, BIKER BOYZ, BLUE CRUSH, COYOTE UGLY, and URBAN COWBOY, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was based on a magazine article purporting to document an exciting new subculture. “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” was written by British rock journalist Nik Cohn and published in New York magazine in June of ’76. “Over the past few months,” it begins, “much of my time has been spent in watching this new generation. Moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, from disco to disco, an explorer out of my depth, I have tried to learn the patterns, the old/new tribal rites. In the present article, I have focused on one club and one tight-knit group which seem to sum up the experience as a whole.” It’s about someone named Vincent, but he’s basically Tony – an Italian-American hardware store employee and “the very best dancer in Bay Ridge.”

Mostly the movie just takes this idea of a meathead nobody who becomes something else at the dance club on Saturday nights. The article doesn’t have a dance contest, a Stephanie character, the trouble on the bridge, or any of the family stuff that’s in the movie. Vincent’s dad is in jail, his brothers are dead, in the hospital, or moved out, so he just takes care of his mother and two younger sisters. There doesn’t seem to be yelling and hitting.

But there are lots of little incidents that made it into the movie. The article includes the scene where a random dancer asks him to kiss her, and turns out to believe he’s Al Pacino. It has part of the Annette story in a character named Donna who pines for Vincent, dances with him once, is taken to his car but abandoned when he finds out she’s not “fixed,” later approaches him with condoms but is ignored. It has the part where Double J gets jumped by Puerto Rican gangsters on the way home from the grocery store and is hospitalized. It ends with them out looking for “those greaseball bastards” because “somebody’s going to pay” after a not-in-the-movie incident where they failed to find a guy they were going to possibly kill for molesting Gus’s sister. So, it’s not the same as the movie, but the whole “Brooklyn tough guys who love to dance” is there.

It would be interesting to know what became of Vincent and what he thought of the movie. One problem: he doesn’t exist. Although Cohn wrote in the introduction that “everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved,” he admitted twenty years later that it was all bullshit. He was new in New York and didn’t really know much about the scene or the neighborhoods, and wasn’t good at interviewing. So he made up characters based on Mods he knew in London in the ‘60s and teen gang members he grew up with in Derry. Vincent was also inspired by what Cohn imagined about a dude he saw standing outside the real 2001 Odyssey club when he went there for the first time… but didn’t go inside because some guy involved in a drunken brawl puked on his pant leg right when he got out of the cab.

So maybe it made more sense than we realized for the movie to be directed by a guy born in England and raised in Alabama, with a soundtrack by white British guys who were pretty new to disco. These are all outsiders reaching for authenticity in their portrayal of this specific subset of “this new generation” that it turns out a guy made up. Of course, that’s not so different from Cannon Films making BREAKIN’ and RAPPIN’. And the ritual of poor people saving up for fancy clothes and trying to show off during a night on the town is timeless and universal, whether or not it happened exactly this way in that neighborhood.

In a 2016 piece in The Guardian, a New York editor from a later era speculated that her predecessor must not have known the piece was fabricated. “Remember that ‘70s Brooklyn was a foreign country to most New York magazine editors,” she said. “It wasn’t cool, and some of them had probably never been there – even to Brooklyn Heights, which was Norman Mailer territory. So they may not have had good radar for credibility.”

Luckily, the movie adaptation had a screenwriter who according to The Independent “had a flair for creating realistic down-to-earth characters with rough edges and a degree of grit.” Norman Wexler had received Academy Award nominations for his first two movies, JOE and SERPICO (the latter of which Tony has a poster of on his bedroom wall). By this point he’d also written MANDINGO and DRUM, had witnessed the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and been arrested by the FBI after an American Airlines flight where he blocked the aisle with tennis rackets, yelled that the other passengers were “whores, latent homosexuals and members of the Mafia,” and announced that he was going to shoot Nixon.

If you’re like me though you know of him as the infamous “Mr. X” mythologized in the book Andy Kaufman Revealed by Bob Zmuda. Though I’m pretty sure the longtime Kaufman collaborator and friend has greatly embellished his stories about working as Wexler’s assistant for three weeks, they probly have a basis in truth. He claims Wexler would go around in a limo, barefoot and looking homeless, and find random people to provoke with bizarre and extreme behavior. Zmuda would smooth things over by handing out piles of cash from a briefcase or, in an emergency, playing a recording of the real Serpico vouching for Wexler. And these encounters would be recorded and transcribed to inspire the “real street dialogue” Wexler was know for in his lucrative career as a script doctor.

Obviously with Wexler behind the typewriter it was never gonna be the goofy movie we of the younger generations pictured from hearing “Stayin’ Alive” and seeing Travolta’s pose on the video box. Over the years when I’ve talked about it to people who hadn’t seen it I’ve warned that it’s not a big laugh, it’s pretty dark and depressing. I thought of Tony’s family life, the scene where Bobby goes crazy climbing around on a bridge and falls to his death, and I vaguely remembered something rapey in a car, not remembering there were two separate backseat sexual assault incidents. Poor Annette finally gives up on Tony and decides to hang out with his friends. He seems to be some kind of slut shaming asshole when he tries to talk her out of it but it turns out he knows they’re gonna take turns with her. Should’ve warned her in more specifics, dickhead, and/or intervened. He just sits there disgusted and then blames her for it, only offering comfort after she seems ready to jump off the bridge.

That’s not really dated, it’s a case where depiction definitely doesn’t equal endorsement. The part that does seem problematic™ by today’s standards is the ending where Stephanie agrees to still be friends with Tony after he tried to rape her. Fictional characters are allowed to make terrible choices, but that one is just such a bummer because it seems like it’s supposed to be an optimistic ending. At least that’s how it played to me this time around. Maybe that was how it wanted me to feel.

It’s certainly not an accident how systematically it depicts every macho attitude ingrained in Tony’s family and friends and how it makes them all miserable. But if you require movies to put you in the company of pleasant people, never, ever watch this. Almost everybody who’s not a victim is horrible. Any shitty attitude toward women that has ever existed, Tony probly expresses it in this movie. It’s constant misogyny from Tony and the boys, and they loosely use the worst slurs for at least two different minorities. There’s a scene where a gay couple looks terrified to come across them – either they’ve been menaced by them before or they can correctly judge their character by looking at them. There is a 100% guarantee that one or more of this crew are guilty of hate crimes. This sort of casual bigotry is common in ‘70s movies trying to be unflinching portraits of white people from the streets, but I wonder if it’s an intentional irony that these devotees of disco have such disrespect for the minorities that created it? Doesn’t matter – it works.

The thing that challenges those of us raised on movies from a more modern era is that they don’t give Tony many redeeming qualities to make him better than the world he comes from. We would be more comfortable if he was smarter than his friends and yearning to break out, or if he had a sweet side that he was just afraid to show until Stephanie brings it out of him, or something like that. But there’s very little of that. He’s a dumb guy. He doesn’t know shit about shit. He doesn’t think about things. He can rarely figure out how to be nice to anybody except his brother, who he doesn’t see very often. He doesn’t know how to stop from saying hurtful things to people who make the mistake of liking him. Just about the only positive things you can say about him are that his boss (Sam Coppola, BLUE STEEL) seems to think he’s a good employee, and that he’s definitely a good dancer.

I mean, it really is something. I like dance movies and I prefer other types of dance and dance sequences. I’m a BREAKIN’ and STEP UP man. But it’s so striking to see the way Travolta moves in this. It doesn’t seem like they had this actor and he trained really hard to learn to dance and do the choreography. It’s more like this guy was born a dancer, has lived his life as a dancer, is a dancer. You know, they have good dancers around him, sometimes they’re even doing synchronized moves, but he blows everybody else out of the water. They tell us he stands out but they don’t have to. It’s magical.

It could’ve happened to a more interesting guy, though. Before Frank Jr. leaves he tells Tony, “The only way you’ll survive is to do what you think is right. Not what they try to jam you into.” But there’s little sign of him having the interior life of an artist. I’m not sure there’s anything behind his movements, that he’s some poetic soul yearning to be freed from the prison of toxic masculinity. At least not at this age. I don’t think he objects to spending hours combing his hair and looking in the mirror, shadowboxing, trying to mold himself into the image of the idols on his bedroom wall – Serpico, Bruce Lee, Rocky Balboa. (He also has Farrah Fawcett and Wonder Woman.)

There are exactly two major scenes where I wanted to be behind him. One is when he tells off his dad for making fun of his excitement over a raise. “I knew you’d piss on it. Go on, piss on it! A raise means you’re good. How many times has somebody told me I was good? Two times. This raise and dancing at the disco. You sure as fuck never did. Asshole!”

The second is more important – it’s when he’s won the dance contest, but is enraged about it because it’s so obvious that the actual best couple were given second place for being Puerto Rican. Nobody else seems to think anything of it, even the other couple, but he goes over and gives them the first place trophy and prize money (and they keep the runner up money!) and storms out. He doesn’t act like some hero, he kind of seems like a grumpy asshole when he does it. I admire the honesty. I don’t think he’s suddenly become enlightened about racism, I think it’s only the pride in his dancing that brings out this unrelenting sense of fairness. He knows what it feels like to be the best, doesn’t want to be a phony. So that led him to being righteous in this one situation. Minutes later he assaults his dance partner.

I still wouldn’t say I fully understand disco, or SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. I think it’s a good movie but can’t wrap around why it was Gene Siskel’s very favorite movie, or how it became such a huge hit while being so gloomy. I don’t know if that’s what people liked about it, or if they just get swept away with the music. I think you had to be there, but that’s okay. The view from here is interesting enough.

up next: summer of ’83’s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sequel STAYING ALIVE, which I have not seen before.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 12th, 2023 at 11:45 am and is filed under Reviews, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Saturday Night Fever”

  1. I know for a fact that I am not the only one who watched it, thinking to be exposed to a delightfully silly dance flick, only to be shocked how it ended with pretty much every character raped, dead or in prison. The joke used to be “Haha, silly disco dance numbers from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER”, now the joke is “People remember SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER completely wrong!”

    “But when I was a teenager, hip hop samples opened a path to P-Funk, and 99 cent records at Goodwill introduced me to Innervisions and Headhunters.”

    This is so relatable. My gateway was the (mostly British) dance music of the 90s and its obsession with sampling old Surf Rock, Funk, Soul, Easy Listening or Swing records. Sometimes even collaborating with the stars from yesteryear, like when Shirley Bassey returned to MTV with the help of Propellerheads or The All Seeing I made a few songs with Tony Christie. Fatboy Slim might be my biggest musical influence, considering how he played Incredible Bongo Band records in the middle of an Acid House set or actually released compilations with some songs that were sampled by him.

  2. Aw yeah, can’t wait for the Summer of Nub era sequel!

  3. I was also stunned by what a dark, depressing, mean, hopeless, but ultimately good and honest movie this is. I think its theme is pretty timely, if perhaps not taken quite as intended. It used to be saying that even the crassest, most base neanderthal dumbfuck out there has some beauty in his heart, if only he were allowed to express it. Now it’s saying that just because some asshole can make something pretty, it doesn’t mean he’s not ugly in his heart. This whole movie is an exercise in seeing if you can separate the art from the artist. It is undeniable that Tony is a fuckin’ genius on the dance floor. He’s out there painting masterpieces every night. But are those few minutes when he’s creating his art worth the pain and suffering he brings to the world every other second of his life? I don’t have the answer to that. But I would hope that if the bouncer ever found out what him and his boys do to the girls after they leave the club with them, he’d get eighty-sixed, regardless of how good he is at dancing. It’s one thing to enjoy the art. It’s another thing to support it when you know what kind of suffering it causes. But I doubt that would happen. Until very, very recently, and even then only in extremely select circumstances, that’s just not the way the world works.

    It’s a really good movie. I never, ever want to watch it again.

  4. One of the weirdest things about the 70s to me is seeing that some mercilessly bleak drama was a huge hit. Not just the kinds of melodramatic tragedies writ large like The Godfather, which makes some degree of sense as a blockbuster, but grimy, depressing works like Chinatown or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Taxi Driver. Even something upbeat and inspiring like Rocky spends 90 minutes presenting a grim portrait of the guy’s life before Gonna Fly Now kicks into gear.

    Not a bad thing, obviously. In many ways, a real flowering for the art. Just strange — something in the smoggy, paranoid air of the times.

  5. JJ, I’m in no way qualified to put forth any kind of opinion or analysis in film, but I would guess the gritty, mean portrayal of life in the films of the 1970s is in response to the sanitized, Ozzy and Harriet type of film and TV those filmmakers grew up on.

    I think I might be a year or two older than you, Vern, but basically the same age. As a teen my friends and I HATED anything from the 70s and aimed our vitriol at disco specifically. My first car had a customized license plate holder that you used stickers to write out a message and I proudly made it read “Death Before Disco”. Years later I softened and started to even like a lot of it, like Donna Summers, etc. Then when I found out the hate for it had its roots in homophobia and racism I felt like a real asshole.

  6. Also, Vietnam. That gave rise to more sentiment that maybe this country wasn’t really the whole “shining city on the hill” ideal and was capable of doing some really misguided and even outright bad shit on a serious level, which in turn killed off a lot of idealism in art and motivated artists to turn an eye more to grimier and seedier sides of America. Which of course were always present but lurking out of view in popular cinema. With that cynicism far more front- and center- than ever before post-Vietnam, the marketplace was more receptive to films like this that protrayed a much less idealistic view of the American dream.

  7. Just think of how dark and “realistic” popculture became after 9/11. James Bond was suddenly a cold blooded killer without any light hearted winking or fun SciFi & pulp gimmicks, Batman became a metaphor on the war on terror, the silly 70s/80s TV trash BATTLESTAR GALACTICA was remade as mumblecore meditation about religion and terrorism, filmed in often out-of-focus handheld style, some of the biggest horror movies were about making victims suffer slow and gruesome deaths that only seemed to be a little more shocking than the stuff we saw on the news, and some dude made a fucking MORTAL KOMBAT webshow that ignored all fantasy elements and reimagined some of the most grotesque characters as serial killers who look like they do because of birth defects of self mutilation. Sure, it all offered still a certain amount of popcorn spectacle and was quite a few steps away from the “new realism” of the 70s (Especially considering that they were mostly re-imaginations of big, fun IPs), but I guess the shittier the times, the darker the mood of the audience.

  8. This is a great movie, and yeah, one of those I can do without ever watching again. The whole surprise at how gritty and depressing it is is an evergreen-type situation I’ve discussed with a lot of people over the years.

    The Chilean film TONY MANERO has an even shittier main character who’s obsessed with SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER during Pinochet’s regime. Another great, disturbing movie I found extremely uncomfortable, though maybe the extremes to which he goes makes it feel a little less like you might run into people like that on the street.

  9. I remember when the director of 8 Mile was on Charlie Rose or something for promo, he mentioned that his movie was closer to Saturday Night Fever than most movies starring rappers turned actors. In turn, the interweb (as it was back then, with ‘scoops’ and whatnot) goes crazy about how 8 Mile was going to be some Eminem cheeseball disco leisure suit movie.

    I then realized SNF had entered the realm of West Side Story and others. A movie where everybody thinks they know what it’s all about, and they think it’s silly/deserving of mockery. But only a very few have actually seen it, and know it’s really not.

  10. I think part of the problem is SNF’s association with GREASE. I’m guessing mind, as I still haven’t seen GREASE, but it seems to have had a certain cheesiness baked in, and the association with Travolta and the huge musical success of both movies seems to’ve obscured what SNF was about. The two movies were released barely 6 months apart.

    I don’t know how it was for y’all in the US, but it’s really hard to overstate the cultural ubiquity of Travolta in the UK in 1978. And that from nothing: Kotter didn’t get shown in the UK until the early 80s, and I don’t think his pre-1977 music was even released in the UK. If he was known for anything – and I don’t think he was – it was for CARRIE. Then within 6 months he had these two massive, cultural phenomenon, hit movies, his hit singles from GREASE with Olivia Newton John occupied the no. 1 position on the UK charts for the best part of half the year, and his own solo single from GREASE reached no. 2 on the charts and hung around for 4 months too. Am I the only one here who remembers when Rat Trap by the Boomtown Rats finally pushed Summer Nights of the no. 1 spot and Bob Geldof gleefully ripped up a poster of Travolta on Top of the Pops?

    That and the Bee Gees have surely shaped how the world sees SNF. And yet, it is a good movie, more aligned with TAXI DRIVER or RAGING BULL than with CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC. Not, you understand, that I knew it then. I was too young to see it on first release and wouldn’t have anyway, given all of the above. It took a certain amount of Badham appreciation to finally get me to watch it, and yeah, the disconnect between what it is and what I expected was really powerful.

  11. It’s funny (or not) but back here, many of us HEARD Saturday Night Fever long before SEEING it. The soundtrack was a huge hit. My dad had the cassette which was frequently played at home, along with those other giants of the Disco Era, Boney M. Like everyone else, the foot tapping numbers, catchy tunes and THAT iconic poster of Travolta all had us believing this would be some frothy film about an awesome Dancer who maybe enters a contest and triumphs against all adversity. And I’m not sure if it was ever screened in theatres here but a year later, I remember seeing Travolta’s other Monster Hit GREASE in cinemas another feel good musical that lulled me into thinking FEVER was cut from the same cloth.

    Then a few years later, FEVER screened on TV in one of the most hilarious edits ever. Whenever there was a scene of swearing, one of the movie’s songs would get spliced in and the volume cranked up to drown out the dialogue. So that scene where Tony berates his father calling him an asshole was downed out by “Ha..Ha…Ha…Ha…Staying Alive…Staying alive”. The scene with the boy on the bridge was scored to “Night Fever Night Fevaaaaaah….” I’m glad the TV version completely cut out the sexual assault because hearing “How Deep Is Your Love” playing over a scene of attempted rape would have been a step too far.

    Then years later, I finally caught the unexpurgated version on video and….holy shit.

    But, I have it on DVD now and have watched it quite a few times. Yes, it’s a bleak, ugly movie about a douchebag but it’s unflinchingly honest and raw and Travolta’s performance is simply electrifying. It’s easy to forget he’s one of the best actors of his generation oozing Movie Star charisma from every pore even at that early stage, so little wonder I’d always welcomed his periodic Career Resurrections and keep hoping just one more is due.

    Tony Manero is a product of his upbringing, his class and his surroundings. Coming from a working class family most likely a few bank withdrawals away from welfare, his situation stymied by a lack of education and opportunities to mingle with a more diverse group of people, Tony’s a crass and sexist young man who’s just going to become a crass and sexist old man with only age and a diminishing libido putting the brakes on his baser appetites. I can imagine him, years and years later, balding and pot-bellied, living alone in a flea bitten apartment, sitting on a worn couch drinking warm beer, scarfing cold pizza and reliving his glory days on the dance floor as he’s jerking his limp dick off to some porn.

    FEVER is practically a meta commentary on separating the art and the Artist. Under the strobe lights, Tony is Harvey Weinstein, the Movie Mogul of Miramax who gave a platform for brilliant film-makers to ply their craft and gave us interesting movies to chew on. Off the dance floor, Tony is…well Harvey Weinstein, all round bully, creep and sexual predator.

    Yeah, the lame and frankly awful ending where Tony is forgiven for his attempted rape is the only false note in this otherwise superbly crafted drama.

    And dating myself here…but that soundtrack is a still a Nostalgic Ass Kicker

  12. There was perhaps even a distance between the movie people thought SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was or would be and the film they saw back in 1978, I know my mum bought the Soundtrack Album and loved the singles at the time and continued to play it for years afterwards, but went to see the film and didn’t care for it at all. She, 19 or 20 at the time, perhaps represented a not inconsiderable demographic.

    There was, as we Manerites know, an attempt to bridge the gap between perception and reality, or perhaps between GREASE and NIGHT FEVER (both Paramount Films with RSO Soundtrack albums in addition to the JT link) in 1979 with the PG Cut, which cut a good 10 minutes or so out of the film (even more was cut for the UK “A” Rated Cut). As far as I know the PG Cut hasn’t been released on Home Video since VHS in the 80s, a shame as its certainly part of the “story” of the film and deserves to at least be included as a second disc extra or something. While it apparently didn’t make as much money as they hoped (by 79 the Glitterball was already starting to crack), it perhaps pointed the way toward the film we’ll be discussing shortly.

    Mickey Mouse Disco Disney Music Video RARE in HD 1080P 16mm Print Hbvideos Cooldisneylandvideos

    Here is a brand New 16mm sound print of Disco Mickey Mouse Now in HD 1080P This is a Rare music video that came out in the early 1980s, I guess it played on...

  13. I actually own the MICKEY MOUSE DISCO album on CD. Had it on tape as a kid (it came with a comic). As silly as the concept is, it’s quite well produced. And fun fact: the funky wah wah guitar on that version of IT’S A SMALL WORLD was sampled in Fatboy Slim’s PRAISE YOU.

  14. CJ: I still have my original vinyl version of Mickey Mouse Disco! Man, I loved that album as a kid. Then, as I got older, I loved it even more for it’s ridiculousness. IIRC the chorus had a line “He’s moving, he’s groovin, he’s painting the town” followed by the backup singers singing “with his paintbrush” (or at least that’s what I thought they sang). Watch Out For Goofy was also a jam. Good times.

  15. The Sesame Street Disco album is sadly not as good, but still fun if you are into (pretty much knowingly) ridiculous Discosploitation. Sadly it came never out on CD, so I had to buy a digital version.

  16. Go back and watch AIRPLANE! Yes, they played everything serious, which is why ZAZ was so detail-oriented in both the production and acting. For the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER scene they flip everything from the style of seedy bar to the joy in the dancing and new relationship. It is a truly masterful mix of tropes and specific parody.

    Airplane!: Saturday Night Fever parody scene

    Ted (Robert Hays) meets Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in a bar. He immediately falls in love with her and joins her on the dancefloor. BINGE MORE: https://youtu.be/...

    SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is a depressing character study which should be obvious just from Wexler’s involvement. But I’ve always been one to find the fun in things as Vern has detailed in his reevaluation of Disco so I’ve always watched it and laughed. As I became more interested in the history and machinations of Hollywood it was interesting to look at how things played out for Travolta. Knowing there was a hold on GREASE you can see how FEVER was a perfect contrast to his image on Welcome Back, Kotter and really set up his journey. As Vern says, Travolta is commanding on the streets and on the dance floor, there was nary a bit of Vinnie Barbarino in that performance.

    I mainly came to talk Disco which I’ve loved since before FEVER was even a poster I could spot when out catching a PINK PANTHER flick. I was too young to visit a discoteque but I listened to the radio and “Rock the Boat” had me listening for that rhythm. I may not have been aware of the ascent of Casablanca Records or the proclivities of The Village People but I was a fan. I sang along with Donna Summer to the amusement of my mother. Disco was big in the public eye for most of the ‘70s and had contributors from a broad spectrum of artists and producers. The story of The Bee Gees coming in after filming wrapped on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is legendary but it should be noted they had a number of Disco hits years before that and as a journeyman group they were a perfect pick as collaborators given their writing, producing and shepherding of other talent.

    As for Disco’s demise it was nothing more than the usual genre shift, but plenty of people are just miserable bastards who couldn’t stand the infectious sound and singalong joy and were happy to run with “Death Before Disco” sentiment. It was probably the only thing Punks and Metal Heads could agree on while New Wave adapted the cues and Rock reasserted itself.

    The Meco arrangements are great fun for dancing but I prefer some tunes that never topped the charts but show the eclectic club sounds of the era. So if you can, check out the playlists of Time-Life’s Disco Fever compilations:

  17. Those Disco Fever compilations seem to be a bit on the obvious side (No offense, they are classics for a reason), but I recommend the (sadly only two) DEEP DISCO CULTURE compilations. They have some great shit on them!

    Deep Disco Culture

    Series from Suss'd Records.

  18. I had Mickey Mouse Disco during that period I mentioned of buying those types of records as a teen, and it was one of a couple things (I remember there was also an Afrika Bambataa record) that I loaned to a friend from school who I bonded with because he was an aspiring DJ so he was the only kid I knew who was interested in funk. He loaned me Mandrill and Johnny Guitar Watson records and the Cypress Hill tape when it first came out and he reviewed The Chronic for the high school newspaper and opened my mind about some of those things (I was more into the “positive” stuff at the time). But I graduated before I got those couple of records back and never saw him again, except on stage, because he grew up to be a very successful producer and musician. It would be funny if those were still in his collection. I hope they are.

    Anyway, CJ, you’re making me want to get a replacement copy. As for Sesame Street Disco, I often quote The Count saying “Counting, counting, DEE-SCO counting!”

  19. That song where Robin Gibb sings about the beauty of trash is always a wonderful WTF when I play it to others free of context.

  20. “I don’t know how it was for y’all in the US, but it’s really hard to overstate the cultural ubiquity of Travolta in the UK in 1978.” Borg9 – whenever I think of Travolta and his dancing I think about him dancing with Princess Diana at a white house dinner. I’ve heard that she said all she really wanted on that trip was to dance with him, but whether that’s just rumor or fact, I have no idea.

  21. “Fun fact: the funky wah wah guitar on that version of IT’S A SMALL WORLD was sampled in Fatboy Slim’s PRAISE YOU.”

    Well, that was simply too delicious to resist. I quickly threw together this remix that I’m sure would offend pretty much everybody involved. Enjoy.

  22. I just need to accept that links never work the first time.

    Don't Fuck With Us (It's A Small World Remix)

    Big up to 2Pac, Tony Manero, and Mickey Mouse.

  23. As we’re all sharing our Mickey Mouse Disco origin stories (is gringrimmingchris gonna chime in?) I was intrigued by it years before I heard or saw any of it, due to The Disney Studio Story by Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley; the back half of the book was a complete filmography for the studio with brief or briefish assessments of each film or short, and a large photo of the cover appeared on the 1980 page next to the paragraph describing the short film version I linked to earlier, which apparently played with THE LAST FLIGHT OF NOAH’S ARK.

    Side note; as that book ended in 1986 (ending just in time for the sweet, sweet introduction of F-Bombs to the Disney cannon with DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, described as “4-letter words that aren’t Walt”) and my memory of Disney Animated Films kicked in around the time LITTLE MERMAID hit VHS when they released 1988’s OLIVER & COMPANY as a “missing masterpiece” on VHS in 1997 I had literally never heard of it despite being pretty in to my animation/Disney History at the time, something I don’t think could happen for a similar enthusiast in the Internet Era (I guess I had somehow never stumbled on it on my CINEMANIA 95 CD-Rom either).

    (Apologies if I have said literally all of this before, which is very possible)

  24. grimgrinningchris

    July 15th, 2023 at 8:24 am


    Funny enough, I only own three disco records. One is the Meco Star Wars, one is the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the other is Mickey Mouse Disco (which I actually have two vinyl copies of somehow).
    I had it as a kid and it was a favorite. I have this strange Mandela Effect memory of having it on a single or singles with a traditional “story & song” book with it. But I must be conflating that memory with something else since apparently that doesn’t exist.

    I sure loved the songs as a kid and used it many times to imitate Travolta. I still enjoy throwing it on once in a while… especially the Saludos Amigos song.

    It was actually kind of a landmark release and besides its own success, it led to the formation of Halyx which was Disney moving on from Disco to trying to both ply off the continued success of Star Wars and the rising success of New wave and arcade and teen mall culture – but sadly that whole thing just became a footnote.

    Also, I watched these movies back to back last night. SNF is on Prime now and Staying Alive is free on Pluto.
    I hadn’t seen either in yeeeears and had prolly only seen Staying Alive once or twice.
    Enjoyed them both. The music and dancing in SNF was far more my speed but I enjoyed spending time with more sympathetic characters in a more straightforward Rocky-ish story with Staying Alive. And Stallone really had a great eye in it all around. Great staging and shooting of cheesy dancing to some of his brother’s goofiest music. And his NY was very real, but not dripping with scuz and misery. Which I guess is a PG sanitizing, but still…

  25. Those looking for the laugh version of this disco opus might take a look at “Thank God it’s Friday”, a silly 1978 discomedy, which mostly takes place in a giant discotheque, during a big disco night. It’s an exercise in silliness, but it’s genuine, and genuinely made in that era – and I personally have a very soft spot for it, since I saw it as a little tyke on television here behind the Iron Curtain somewhere in the early 80s (could have been 1983, in fact), and it was probably my first meeting with US disco culture (which was already mostly gone in USA by then, but here, some of its last tenants were still holding on).

    I’m fairly certain that my five-year-old self particularly loved the scene in which a police patrolman starts nodding in appreciation and making small disco dance moves, as a lost lone drummer for a disco band (“The Commodores”) gives him an impromptu concert in a parking lot, to prove that he really is with the band and is just hopelessly lost on the way to find them, and that he had not nicked their equipment. It’s certainly what I remember most from it.

    The poster makes it look slightly sleazy, like some soft-erotica picture, but it’s actually very innocent – as far as I can recall, its sleaziest part is Jeff Goldblum, who makes a few lecherous remarks and vile grins at some of the dancing girls throughout the film, until he leaves, annoyed and incredulous, because someone smeared the wax on his beloved car.

  26. I always thought of this as a disco analogue to Mean Streets. Mostly because of its episodic storytelling and flawed characters. I forgot how flawed the characters in it were. The strut scene at the beginning is so good it almost makes the rest look like an anticlimax.

  27. Thanks Chris :)

    I’ve yet to see THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY, but it has a decent place in my psyche as it was one of the VHS tapes in what was in retrospect a relatively small selection at my first (“Mom & Pop” as they say in the US) Video Rental Store, the one I went to until I was around 11. (I pretty much stopped when they didn’t bother to stock STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. Can you imagine!) The video carried an 18+ certificate, which apparently is not what our film board actually rated it (15+), but I guess they jumped the gun in printing the cover or wanted it to seem cooler or something. At any rate the 18+ intrigued me; what could be so adult about a Friday night, I wondered.

  28. I have never seen this, but I did cajole my parents into buying me Pure Disco 1 and 2 on CD from Columbia House when I was a kid. They refused to buy me Pure Funk because it was too salacious. If they had, perhaps it would’ve altered the course of my life. Instead, I log this comment as a mere disco appreciator and not a funk fanatic. But the Bee Gees rule, dangit.

    Great piece, Vern.

  29. Maggie, I can neither confirm or deny those rumours about Princess Diana. What I can tell you is that the dress she wore that night is known as the “Travolta dress”, and it has its own Wikipedia page.

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