John Travolta ended up losing his day and will only get a few hours alongside Judy Garland and Katharine Hepburn. Sorry John, I’ll do better next year! Out of the multitude of Travolta’s films, there’s a handful that are considered “classic” and Saturday Night Fever was one my mother recommended. If she wasn’t my mother, I’d probably scream at her because I disliked this intensely. Yes, it is incredibly dated and for someone who didn’t live anywhere near the 1970s, the movie is one big time capsule of atrocious dancing and disco music. Outside of that, the movie’s extreme misogyny and degradation of women ruined any sympathy I might have had for the characters. Saturday Night Fever is an aimless movie wandering from club to club in search of dance and ignoring story and character. The soundtrack is great and the choreography is well-done, but that’s it.
Tony Manero (Travolta) is a 1970s teen who yearns for Saturday nights when he can dance with his friends at the club 2001 Odyssey. In preparation for a big dance contest Tony decides to team up with the snooty Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney). As Tony and Stephanie get closer, a series of events compels Tony to inspect his life and wonder if he should strive for more.
Upon release in 1977, Saturday Night Fever was considered the defining film of the decade. If I needed to explain to someone what the 1970s looked like, I would recommend they watch this. Polyester, high hair, and disco reign supreme, along with a fair amount of general malaise and ambivalence. I’m sure one could explore what Saturday Night Fever says about the decade, politically and socially, but I only have a passing knowledge of what the 1970s detailed outside of Women’s Liberation (and I’ll get to that in a minute). The movie is hysterically dated and out-of-touch which provides a nostalgic charm for those who grew up during the era. If you rocked polyester duds and listened to disco (which would die out violently a year or so later), then you’ll enjoy listening to the Bee Gees and rooting for Tony Manero. Other than that, young adults like me will just see this as a hopefully sad time capsule of the decade.
In terms of positive qualities, the soundtrack ended up being on several lists of the era and would become the best-selling album of all time, selling 20 million copies, until Michael Jackson’s Thriller knocked it off six years later. I’ve never had a hatred of disco like some, so the Bee Gees driven soundtrack was a major focal point for me. Songs like “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing” are still catchy as hell, and along with the rest of the musical score, I’m not ashamed to admit I’d put this on my iPod (trust me, I have worse on there). The choreography, while not West Side Story, is well done and looks complex considering several of them are group dances. I’ve never doubted John Travolta’s prowess as a dancer, and this movie solidified his qualities in that area. Travolta’s dancing is confidence, masculine, and executed well, particularly with his female dance partners.
Well, that was the good; time for the bad. There’s little explanation for this being 2-hours, it’s interminably long. The movie struts from dance sequence to rehearsal sequence to brief moments with Tony and his friends and family. The latter gets the weakest development as the family disappears after an hour and the friends are interchangeable faces other than Bobby C. (Barry Miller) who has problems with his girlfriend and ends up committing suicide. There’s a subplot involving Tony’s brother, Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) who decides to quit his job in the priesthood. He has an interesting moment visiting the club Tony goes to in the guise of reacclimating to a normal life, but he ends up being sent away. By story’s end I knew little about the characters, and Tony’s epiphany at the end was unearned but necessary to avoid leaving the audience with negative thoughts on the character.
That leads me to the smuttiest move Saturday Night Fever employs: rampant – and almost glorified – misogyny. I’ve commented before on films of this period attacking Women’s Lib. Crassly put, Saturday Night Fever rapes that into submission and shows no apology for it. From the opening moments, Tony tells village doormat Annette (Donna Pescow) that she’s either a “good girl or a cunt” (my apologies on the language, I hate typing that word and the movie loves to use it). Right from the start, you understand these men are misogynists; however, there’s never any true depth given to the females to counteract that, and thus you’re left with a bunch of weak women and misogynistic men. The relationship between Tony and Annette is better developed, and Donna Pescow – aka Louis Stevens’ mom from Even Stevens – is great as the tortured and continuously maltreated lover of Tony. You understand the history between Annette and Tony in a way that’s never felt with Tony and Stephanie. Tony likes Stephanie because she’s pretty and classy and can lead him to a better life. The problem is that there’s never a moment where they enter into a real relationship, so when Tony attacks Stephanie and accuses her of being a slut for simply dancing with another man, he looks like a worldclass douche!
The final sequences are the worst, involving not one but two separate rape scenes; in one, Tony tries to rape Stephanie and is foiled; another has Annette being gang-raped by Tony’s friends. The latter is the worst because it’s rape, plain and simple. It’s the moment where Tony loses all faith in his friends, but he still gets in one dig on Annette being a “cunt,” only to provide a requisite and ham-fisted apology. We never see Annette again because she’s unimportant, so who cares about the long-term effects of her seeing her rapists everyday? The epiphany of the movie revolves around Tony apologizing to Stephanie who takes him back with little coercion; the movie’s almost over so let’s give him some redemption. I know that movies don’t necessarily need good characters, and while these characters are meant to be losers, they’re misogynistic losers who shouldn’t be the leads of a movie that’s taken on a cache of being cool. This movie inspired and defines the 1970s, but what are we truly defining? Disco, polyester, and the total denigration of women apparently.
Is Saturday Night Fever a sign of the times? Extremely so. The issue is how dated it is in terms of its views on race (I forgot to mention the movie is extremely racist), and women. Audiences coming into it now will see it as meandering, pedantic, and borderline offensive. I don’t envy those who enjoy this film – one of them is my mother – but it’s incredibly hard to come into this film in 2013 and find it enjoyable.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.