Who doesn’t love themselves some disco? I know I do. Ok, please put that noose away and just hear me out. Disco is nothing but good time music that captivated the public and pop artists for years. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall is straight up disco and a bunch of songs off of Thriller are also disco but with less strings and more synth. Even Paul McCartney gave it a shot with “Goodnight Tonight”. There are other records that people like to think of as pop but disco is a subgenre of pop. All I’m sayin’ is there’s more to this music than “Disco Inferno”, “I Will Survive” and “Le Freak”. Damn good pop and dance tunes have come out of this universally despised craze. Now that I’ve said my piece let’s check out Saturday Night Fever. It’s most likely the first thing that comes to mind when someone says the word “disco”. But this film is about so much more. There’s a bunch of surprisingly dark shit that happens.
Racial slurs, gang banging and attempted rape aren’t the things I expected to be put in front of my eyes when I popped this in. I thought it was going to be nothing but John Travolta dancing in a club and trying to get with the love interest. That does happen but everything else is a pretty unadulterated glimpse into the life of a young Brooklyn kid/thug.
Travolta is Tony Manero, by day he works at a hardware store but by night he’s the dancing king of…at least this one particular club (2001 Odyssey) and maybe all of Brooklyn but it’s not clear. All the women at 2001 want to dance with him, wipe his brow and just be in his company. One night Tony sees this chick out on the floor (Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney (umm this is pretty much her only claim to fame))) that impresses him and decides to partner up with her for a dance competition.
The love story part is very strange and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. Usually when the two leads fall for each other either there’s instant chemistry or it takes the whole picture for them to realize they’re in love. In the end they’re the perfect fit. With this movie Tony falls for Stephanie but Stephanie isn’t this ideal creature that you expect. She’s got a nasally (and in my opinion annoying) voice, rambles on about meeting famous people at her workplace (we never find out if she’s making it up for not), dumps on Brooklyn and praises Manhattan and the real kicker is she’s not that interested in Tony. Over the course of the film Stephanie gains a new friend in Tony, not a lover. They share a special bond because of their mutual passion for dancing but that relationship doesn’t blossom into a love affair. Tony would like that to happen but Stephanie doesn’t relent. This is such a refreshing and unformulaic take on film romance. It’s cool to see a movie take a risk and for that risk to actually work and not blow up in the picture’s face.
This thing is full of surprises like that and this brings me to Tony’s band of friends. They’re rowdy and crude. They’re racist, treat women like shit and do some really fucking dumb things like walk along the edge of and hang from the cables of the Verrazano bridge. I like that the filmmakers didn’t water down the culture of these Brooklyn kids. If they go beat up the guys that jumped one of their own then it’s just who they are. There’s even a part where one of Tony’ friends is having sex in the backseat of a car right outside 2001 Odyssey while the rest of the gang tells him to hurry up. But he says the chick hasn’t cum yet so they gotta keep going.
There’s this one girl, Annette (Donna Pescow (lots of TV shit)) that I have to mention that’s in love with Tony but Tony’s not in love with her (get it? Sort of like the reverse situation that Tony has with Stephanie). She gets treated pretty horribly throughout the movie with Tony dumping her as a dancing partner for Stephanie, she’s constantly rejected by Tony to go out, she has a cruel practical joke played on her when Tony and his buds pretend to jump off the Verrazano (she gets called a “stupid bitch” for falling for that by the way) and she gets gang banged by the friends. Annette is obsessed with Tony and sure that’s a little creepy but she doesn’t seem like a bad person. I feel sorry for her because of how much she gets dumped on in this movie. It’s really tragic.
And what about the dancing? It’s pretty cool. Travolta worked really hard to not only get in shape but to also learn all the moves. It paid off ‘cause he looks smooth as a motherfucker out there. The scene where he dances by himself is particularly impressive and I can see why it’s the one part of the movie that everyone knows (well that and the intro where Travolta walks down the street to “Stayin’ Alive”).
The highlight (besides the dancing) is Travolta himself. He plays a convincing tough and vain Brooklynite. Confidence just oozes out of the guy and that makes him fun to watch. I never once thought, “hey that’s John Travolta”. He does a good job drawing you in to the aura that’s supposed to be there. I guess I forget that he’s a good actor. You couldn’t just have any old schmo that can dance as the lead. You need a charismatic sonuvabitch to pull off a role like this and having Travolta in there with his weirdness on full display works great.
The juxtaposition (did I really just use that word?) of the simplistic ecstasy of night time disco dancing against the complexity of the rest of Tony’s life makes for an interesting picture. In the club he reigns supreme but outside of that his life isn’t really going anywhere. Tony’s supposed to be one helluva stud but he can’t get the girl that he really wants. He can only have her on the dance floor. Tony even tries to rape Stephanie because his emotions for her boil over. And it’s unclear if Tony has changed at the end of the film. He says he has and that he wants to move forward with his life, a life outside of dancing. But Stephanie quickly explains to him that it’s not easy. At one point Tony wonders if he’ll ever be as passionate about something else as he is about dancing. I think Tony learns that he needs to find whatever that something else is or learn to cope with a non dance centric life because if he doesn’t then he’ll throw himself off the Verrazano.
I really dug this movie. It was way more interesting and deeper than I thought it would be. I love the vulgar nature of the characters set against an activity and music that’s supposed to make you feel good bring happiness even if it’s for a couple of hours. For example when Tony is dancing with Fran Drescher (in her film debut) he says “if you’re as good in bed as you are on the dance floor I bet you’re one lousy fuck”. It’s that kinda shit that gives this film unexpected balls. I say give it a shot. Don’t let preconceived notions get in the way.