Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Saturday Night Fever
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.

Ronnie Rating:

1andHalfRonnis

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Saturday Night Fever [Blu-ray]

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29 thoughts on “Saturday Night Fever (1977)

  1. Kristen, I was 14 when SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was in theaters (dating myself, I know :-)), and my older siblings took me to see it at the Interboro Theatre in the Bronx, where I lived at the time, if I recall correctly. I remember liking the music and the dancing, and John Travolta made an impression, most certainly — BUT I agree with you 100% that most of the characters were so unlikable that I found myself wishing I could just watch the dance numbers instead! I did enjoy the music, though, especially The Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.” Otherwise, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER might be more interesting as a time capsule of the fashions and the world of obnoxious young men from Queens, New York! 🙂 In any case, Kristen, I very much enjoyed your post!

  2. Anybody who thinks (as I initially did) that this film is simply about disco dancing and having a good time on Saturday night is in for a rude awakening. Having seen it at least twice, I appreciate it and I’ll explain why in a moment. As you mentioned, there is not much to like about the characters, even and perhaps especially Tony Manero, who I would have expected to adhere to a higher moral standard (although it netted Travolta an Oscar nomination). I also agree wholeheartedly that their attitude toward and treatment of women is appalling to say the least. 1977 wasn’t so long ago that we can make allowances for ignorance–not that such behavior would be justifiable at any time. But it’s Tony’s demons and how they are counterproductive to his dream that makes the story interesting. Here’s a guy who is very talented, but his immaturity and inner rage hold him back. The people around him aren’t good for him as they are equally flawed. Basically he is a product of his ugly environment and I must accept it. That allowed me to follow the journey, even if it turned out to be a tragedy dressed in polyester. I’m hoping this all made sense. And yes, I do have the soundtrack 🙂

    • That helped me understand it a lot more than what I’ve commonly been told, “Well, you had to be there.” I am open to giving this a second chance in the future, and my mother wants me to watch the atrocious follow-up purely for entertainment purposes.

      • Happy my perspective was able to help a little. But as for the sequel “Stayin’ Alive”, atrocious is definitely one word to describe it!

      • Kristen, I’m not clear on why it’s confusing in this case, but the movie doesn’t approve of the misogyny and racism and other things present, in fact that’s the point.

        I feel from what you’re saying that perhaps your mother and others aren’t really clearly explaining the “you had to be there” point. It’s not that the things in the movie that upset you were “of the time” in the sense of therefore being “ok”, it’s just that you have to understand that movies and some TV of the time were instrumental in changing culture for the better by way of morality plays of this kind.

        I was under 10 at the time but had much older siblings and of course as a teen in the ’80s was able to look not too far back and understand what was happening culturally. The movie’s theme is basically the disco scene can be a positive thing (or away from it’s time the ‘nightclub’ scene) but there are cultural problems that need addressing and what at the time was basically “gang culture” is wrong for its misogyny, racism, substance abuse, and generally being empty of certain values that young people can embrace and make something of their lives.

        The entire movie is a series of epiphanies for Tony. He joins in the misogynistic attitudes, but then is upset when he sees the reality that the end road of that is rape. He joins in calling the dancers racial slurs and then realizes how unjust it is that they lost due to racism even though they were better. He joins in with the gang stupidity of the fighting and revenge, and reckless irresponsible antics on the bridge, then sees nothing was gained by the revenge attack on the rival ‘gang’ and his friend is killed trying to prove how brave and “macho” he is. Etc.

        At the end of the movie he rejects all of this and leaves it behind. Movies of this kind helped to improve our culture, the opposite of what you seem to be accusing it of. I have to say that as a teen in the ’80s I must have watched this movie 20 times on HBO and *I learned its lessons* as a young man. There was no mistaking what it was trying to tell me and teach me how *not* to be in my attitudes and behavior. It taught me maturity when I didn’t have people in my life to teach me such lessons, quite the opposite.

        So, even though I never comment online I felt moved to respond to your surprising take on this movie. Such films were vitally necessary and important and had a positive, not negative impact, with their gritty no-holds-barred portrayals of societal ills at the time and lessons needed for young people growing up of being respectful of others and making something of yourself. That is a positive thing.

        Thanks for reading,

        CJ

      • CJ, thanks a lot for helping to explain the movie a bit. With all the reactions I’ve gotten to my review I owe it to myself to watch it again at some point down the road with all this insight. Thanks for taking the time to give your thoughts, I appreciate them a lot!

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  4. OMG! What a pristine example of your generation’s vapid and intellectually tragic state of affairs.
    According to your highly prejudicial and self-serving perspective, every flawed, damaged, unlikable,
    and villainous character from Shakespeare to The Simpsons should be run through the shallow sieve
    of your PC-infused and Internet-enabled sensibilities and reduced to the simplistic and laughably adolescent description of “douche”.

    Your mother might be well-advised to reacquaint you with a good and solid educational course in advanced film criticism or cinema studies, since your comments on SNF unfortunately reveal the rather pathetic limitations of your sensitivity towards a film’s context and intent, and could potentially offer some new and deeper insights that might shock you into a stunned and apologetic silence.

    “Saturday Night Fever” is a film about a racist, sexist, religiously repressed, economically corrupt
    and divisive American social order that results in the cruelty, ignorance, and various tragedies
    and liberations of it’s unaware and desperately unenlightened characters. The music and dancing and sparkling surfaces of it’s disco setting is merely the velvet sheath that hides the hidden dagger of it’s screenplay’s sharply pointed ATTACK on that racist, sexist, and ignorant social arrangement, not the advertisement for, or romanticized embodiment , of it.

    It would be in your best interest as a self-appointed judge of the “classical”, to understand and appreciate the difference, before reducing yourself to the simplistic and easily understandable
    description of “dumb”.

    • Thanks for your comments. Even though they’re negative, I appreciate you taking the time to voice them regardless. I’m intrigued to know what generation you think I belong to. I’d like to think my ’90s era upbringing hasn’t affected my writing too much. I don’t believe my opinion was prejudicial and I’ve received several comments from people who do agree with my assessment. I’m all for antiheroes, and I don’t subscribe to the belief that every character needs to be sympathetic. If anything, I think your assumptions about me seem more prejudicial than my review. I am actually minoring in film so I have taken several cinema studies and film criticism classes. Unfortunately, we’ve never watched Saturday Night Fever, maybe it hasn’t hit the generation wherein it’s required viewing in an educational setting? I understand the movie’s intent and I understand your position on the film, as I’ve understood other people who’ve also mentioned my assessment is incorrect. For me, the movie failed to connect with me and I stand by my opinion as I’m sure you stand by yours. I’m willing to revisit the movie at a later date and maybe my perspective will change with time. I’d love to coin myself the judge of classic film, but I understand I still have a lot to learn and refine. Unlike some critics, I understand I don’t know everything and my reviews only reflect my opinion. If anything, I’m happy the review continues to get people’s attentions and discussion or else we’d never be able to exchange in this dialogue. Hopefully, I’ll be able to entice you with other reviews and you’ll hang around the site longer. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • But you DONT understand the movie’s intent. There is no “position” to take. There’s nothing to “rediscover”a second time around. You don’t like it because it threatens you. Period. Therefore, you’ve devalued it as art, rather than having the courage to admit that you’re incapable of separating your subjective emotions from your objective appreciation of it’s themes. It’s that simple.

        And what threatens you, which is essentially CRUCIAL to it’s status as something important enough to remain relevant, and therefore TIMELESS, is it’s utter refusal to compromise with ANY of humanity’s ugliness, regardless of race, creed, class, religion ,or gender.

        What would of made you comfortable enough to praise it, would actually of made it a film unworthy of mention.

      • Kristen, I agree with you 100%. What ‘Anonymous’ doesn’t get is that yes there are anti-heroes. But every anti-hero, since he’s also the protagonist, has to have the audience’s empathy in order to work. So the assassin (of bad guys) with the heart of gold is a good anti-hero. As is the prostitute who’s looking to do better. Or perhaps the burglar who burgles to feed his sick kid. All of these are anti-heroes – but they DO get the audience’s empathy.

        However, what anti-heroes NEVER do is cross the line of decency where there’s no grey area any more. For example, you’ll never find an anti-hero protagonist who goes around molesting children, or an anti-hero who is a murderer. Likewise you’ll NEVER find an anti-hero that is a rapist. Raping, molesting, killing for no reason – these are all NO longer anti-hero qualities that we can accept as ‘grey’. So once a filmmaker or screenwriter presents an anti-hero that is a rapist such as Tony in Sat Night Fever – you have a MAJOR problem. Maybe the problem is only for ladies, and enlightened men, but it IS a problem. This film was so misogynistic that no way would it have been made or watched in 2015 where women’s rights and liberties are front and centre.

        To that ‘Anonymous’ who seems to be a horrible person with no manners – I’d like to know if he can accept watching a movie where the hero is a paedophile?!? Because there are SOME things in life that simply cross the line of decency. Period.

        And PS – I AM a film critic.

      • Marjorie, your comments put a smile on my face! I’ve often thought about closing the comments section for this film, as it remains one of my most hotly debated reviews, but comments like yours make me assume my thoughts remain valid. You bring up some excellent boundaries for what constitutes an antihero we’re at least interested in seeing, and Tony Manero just isn’t. Thanks for making me think I wasn’t so crazy after all!

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  14. Really interesting responses. Thanks for this piece.

    I actually wanted to write to ask you to re-evaluate your views on Disco music, not base it on the pop music portrayed in this film or the stereotypes it created in an attempt to mass market Disco outside of it’s sub-genre Black, Latino, and White audiences.

    Disco was revolutionary, for many different reasons, and not only for the particular commercialized sub genre of disco included in this movie. Disco was a music and sub-culture created by gay Black and Latino men and others for many reasons: to create a safer space where they could interact, unwind, escape, etc. Later some club owners created dance spaces, that played disco, where all different kinds of people could interact with the intent on creating a more tolerant society, through inclusivity. Disco clubs and some Disco labels promoted the elevation of the DJ as an artist. While the music was not overtly political; I’d argue that the presence of such a club was a political statement. Hedonistic elements associated with the culture interfered with political alliances and earned it animosity. I’d actually argue that some elements of pop-Disco culture portrayed in this film (clothes and learned dance steps being two) are anti-Disco, in that it separates people, in intent.

    Oh, and I’m of the school that believes that disco never died. After the Disco Demolition Night disco continue to be made, and evolved. Elements of gay, black, latino, and white underground dance sub-cultures resisted and fought back. DJ’s continued to play Disco in gay and urban clubs and added more electronic elements, become more electronic, or spliced with electronic or European electronic music and evolved. Gone were the lush orchestral pieces and sound and in was first post disco, then electronic dance music. By the early 1980’s in Chicago, and heavily Disco influenced (style and in some ways the inclusive culture) new genre of music, House, was born. From House came Techo and Trace. Disco continued and evolved in the mainstream in various European societies, one of the genres is Italo disco.

    But I’ve said more than intended. As for the movie, my parents banned us, as children, from seeing it because of the rape scene, its sounds from an album were my introduction to Disco. Though snippets it showed me elements of a fictionalized US society that disturbed me. I find this movie more interesting given it’s landscape, the use of music born in an act of rebellion, inclusion and a statement of being for some, and the reinvention and reinterpretation of important thematic traditions in Disco by the film.

    If you are interested in Disco’s history and personal narratives recounting it, here are a few links:

    The Godfather of Disco // Mel Cheren // West-End Records:

    The Joy of Disco:

    Pump of The Volume – The History of House Music (Disco is referenced early in the documentary)

    Pump of The Volume – The History of House Music (Sub.Español)

    Queens of Disco As Told By The BBC

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  16. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/220722/dancin-yeah-john-derbyshire

    This is a review of SNF that understands the beauty of this movie. The scene when Tony and Stephanie are sitting on the bench admiring the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the sweetest scenes put on film. Tony just met the guy she used at the office to forward herself. She is embarrassed and ashamed. It speaks well of her that she is ashamed and begins to cry. Tony immediately forgives her and they stop for a spell to admire the bridge. She listens to him for the first time looking past his vulgarity.. “Oh yeah, what ideas you got?” and then sweetly gives him a peck on the cheek. That kiss is everything. It is a great film.

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