Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Rating: B-

Dir: John Badham
Star: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Paul Pape

One of the 70’s seminal films, I have to confess I hadn’t ever seen it, and was surprised at quite how harsh a movie it is. The lead character is, especially by today’s standards, virulently prejudiced by race and sex: witness Tony’s casual question, “Are you a nice girl or a cunt? You can’t be both. A girl has to decide early on what she’s going to be.” In his defense, he’s 19, not an age at which subtlety is notable. Violence is an everyday part of his life, from the slaps his family administer to each other round the dinner-table, through to the sexual assault at the end of the movie.

In between, Tony (Travolta) works towards a dance contest: while he’s just a hardware store sales clerk during the day, at the weekends, he rules the underlit floor of a local disco. He dumps his longtime partner in favor of an older woman, Stephanie (Gorney), with better moves, who is also trying to move on up, thanks to her career in Manhattan. In many ways, it’s similar to Rocky, in which an Italian working-class kid tries to find a way out of the ghetto, thanks to a single-minded devotion to his talent. Indeed, that film’s director, John Avildsen, was originally contracted to direct this too. Interesting to note that the article on which the movie was based turned out to have been largely fabricated: the lead character wasn’t based on a Brookyln disco-king, but a British mod.

For despite flaws (like the strand about Tony’s priestly brother, which goes nowhere), it captures, impeccably, the feeling of youth, invulnerable and with a confidence far in excess of what is justified. But for all his (numerous) flaws, Tony is a sympathetic character, who is fiercely loyal to his friends and family, and tries to relate to Stephanie’s more-cultured background, with its references to Romeo and Juliet. And, even though I hate disco – when this came out in 1978, punk was going full force in the UK – I have to confess, the hooks the Bee Gees used are impeccable. Seeing Tony stride down the street in the opening scene still left me inclined to work on my dance moves.