Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever

7/31/13 (Wed)

I had tried to download Saturday Night Fever on iTunes on a whim while I was on an island in Thailand, but it was so painfully slow – it was set to take nearly three days at that speed – that I gave up. I finished the job back in Tokyo, which took about two minutes. I hadn’t seen the film since its debut in 1977 and wondered if it would live up to my misty water-colored memories.

Happily it did, and then some. The characters are all vividly drawn but remain completely believable in their personalities and motivations. I didn’t quite recall how raunchy the story could be or how casually it treated sex and women and drugs and other fun, and there are some non-PC moments that would probably never see the light of day in these sadly enlightened times. But it created a credible world that remained true to itself from start to finish. Movies today seem too timid to be true, whereas this had the feel of cinema verismo (if that’s the phrase). No surprise that it reflected the period so well since that’s after all when it was made, but the unembellished attitudes of the characters really made them come alive for me.

John Travolta was perfect in every way as the main character Tony. Aside from the dancing and that iconic pose, he was great at showing, without self-pity, an awareness that he didn’t amount to much in anyone’s eyes other than on the disco floor. I loved the scene where he blows up at his mother, calling her a failure for having such worthless kids, then immediately taking pity in a tearful apology. That was terrific acting on top of terrific writing. For all his strutting and posing, he radiated sincerity, such as his relationship with his brother. His insistence that the Puerto Ricans be given the dance prize regardless of their ethnicity (i.e., non-Italian) felt true without veering into platitudes. Bravo.

Tony’s dance partner was every bit his match. I figured at first that she would be the upper-class girl who would reject and ultimately be charmed by Tony the punk. Then, even after she was revealed to be from the same social strata, her endless name-dropping seemed to be setting her up as the villain. (She: “Come on, you don’t know Romeo & Juliet?” He: “Sure, that’s Shakespeare or something, right?” She: “Nah, Zeffirelli.”) But it became clear that she really was striving to better herself within the limited means that life gave her, which suddenly made her more sympathetic and real. The movie didn’t take any easy steps with these characters. Other memorable roles among a film full of them were the young kid wracked with guilt over getting his girlfriend pregnant; Tony’s elder brother, the pride and joy of the family until his shocking resignation from the priesthood; the mother, unable to take pride in her children for what they are; and the girl willing to stoop as low as necessary to dance and sleep with Tony.

In addition to the hilariously appalling clothing and hairstyles (ugh, the memories), the film has lots of period references like Rocky, Bruce Lee and Serpicoera Al Pacino that make it a real nostalgia trip. Homophobic, racist and sexist comments abound unrepentantly, which was quite right. We get the picture without being pounded over the head with it. The lack of preaching was refreshing. John Travolta’s hairy-chested, fairly normal body, and his lack of self-consciousness about it, is in itself a throwback; compare it to his shaved-down, buffed-up body in the sequel, the Reagan-era Staying Alive (1983), where narcissism has already taken hold just six years later. The disco scenes were wonderfully choreographed, managing to look like real-life dances rather than production numbers while still contributing to the characterizations. I hear that the actors in the West End/Broadway stage version sang these songs rather than simply dance to them, which sounds to me a big mistake. The music is indispensable, one of the best film scores ever written, but it’s essentially sublime mood music rather than character songs. The creators here managed to have a splashy musical within a very natural context, which felt right. If the questionable lyrics are sung with any seriousness, I think the magic would be broken.

The film doesn’t seem to make anyone’s Top 100 list of great movies, but it impressed me all over again. It’s a superb portrait of a certain subgroup at a moment in time, and delivers a nice “be yourself” message that has rarely been managed with such finesse. Its unapologetic presentation of these less-than-ideal youths beats the dripping insincerity of modern flicks hands down. Will look forward to the next viewing in another few years.


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