Saturday Night Fever: Disco Inferno

… CATCH IT!

In the mid-1970s, British rock journalist Nik Cohn arrived in New York City. He gained attention by writing an article for New York Magazine called ”Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, vividly depicting the local disco scene. The article ended up inspiring the movie Saturday Night Fever… but it turned out to be fake. In the 1990s, Cohn admitted to having fabricated everything in the article; his visit to Brooklyn was very short-lived and he didn’t even go inside 2001 Odyssey, the club featured in the article.

His leading character was fictional, inspired by a mod he’d known back in England in the ’60s. Somehow, Cohn’s imagination was believable and inspirational enough to fuel a movement.

19-year-old Tony Manero (John Travolta) is a Brooklyn kid who lives with his parents and works in a hardware store. His older brother Frank, Jr. (Martin Shakar) is a Catholic priest and the true pride of his parents. Tony doesn’t really care about his future; he lives for going out and dancing every weekend, which is a point of contention for his parents. Tony usually goes to 2001 Odyssey, the local disco club, where he’s the king of the dance floor. He considers taking part in a dance contest together with Annette (Donna Pescow), a girl who desperately wants him… but then he’s smitten by the sexy and confident Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney).

Propelling Travolta to stardom
The movie became a huge sensation in 1977 and propelled Travolta to stardom; he was well known for the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979), but Saturday Night Fever elevated him to, well, another planet, it seemed at times. This is still his greatest performance. Thanks to brilliant choreography, Travolta completely dominates the dancing at the disco; he’s such a joy to watch. But he also brings emotional authenticity to the character outside the club; Tony Manero is a working-class kid who’s trying to handle girls, parents, buddies, the prospect of getting stuck in Brooklyn and his complex feelings for his older brother, a guy he loves but who’s making him look like the black sheep of the family. This isn’t an easy role to play and Travolta feels like a natural every step of the way.

Aside from the working-class portrait, the drama itself is the weakest part of the story. In fact, Tony himself becomes a rather tiresome, smug local talent who needs to learn a few things about himself and what the world looks like outside Brooklyn. Then again, the real star of the film might not even be Tony or Travolta, but the Bee Gees and the soundtrack in general. While shooting the film, Travolta danced to completely different music; then the Gibb brothers were hired and the result became a phenomenal disco score, one of the most commercially successful soundtracks in history. Their songs are classics now, but the film also borrowed several other disco tracks that lend it unbeatable energy, most notably ”Disco Inferno” by The Trammps.

The scenes at 2001 Odyssey impressed me. It’s not really the camera or the editing that create an effect; it’s the staging of the scene, the music and Travolta’s performance – mesmerizing. If this movie were made now, the filmmakers would probably not trust their lead enough to let them dominate like that. Instead, the editing would do all the work.

Saturday Night Fever 1977-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Robert Stigwood. Directed by John Badham. Screenplay: Norman Wexler. Songs: ”How Deep Is Your Love”, ”Stayin’ Alive”, ”Night Fever”, ”If I Can’t Have You”, ”More Than a Woman” (Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb). Cast: John Travolta (Tony Manero), Karen Lynn Gorney (Stephanie Mangano), Barry Miller (Bobby C.), Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow… Fran Drescher.

Trivia: John G. Avildsen was first hired as director. Later a Broadway musical. Followed by Staying Alive (1983).

Last word: “[Choreographer Lester Wilson was] such an interesting guy. He taught me what he called his ‘hang time.’ He would smoke a cigarette to greet the day, and he infused my dancing with African-American rhythm. I’m the kind of dancer who needs thought and construction – an idea – before I dance. I need an internal story. Lester would put on some music and he would say, ‘Move with me, motherfucker – move with me!’” (Travolta, Vanity Fair)

 

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