It’s been 38 years since Saturday Night Fever burst into our collective consciousness and became a major pop culture phenomenon. The film played a major part in boosting the popularity of the disco genre before it’s eventual demise by the beginning of the 80s (the Disco Demolition of 1979 is partly to be blamed for that). John Travolta’s iconic dance moves in his famous white suit have been imitated by many young men on dance floors all over the world but I doubt if any of them came close to duplicating the effortless and electrifying magnetism that Travolta possessed. Of course, there is only one Travolta and it’s unfair to compare others to him. It’s the only film that captured the disco era right and no other dance film has come close to achieving it’s level of perfection. This was not just a film about dance but also a gritty and serious drama about ordinary people living in Brooklyn. Travolta was 23 at the time but he was playing the role of Tony Manero, a 19-year old who worked as a paint store clerk by day and unleashed his inner “disco superhero” at night at the local nightclubs.
Tony lives with his younger sister, his discouraging father who used to be a construction worker but is currently unemployed, and his deeply Catholic mother and his grandmother who doesn’t speak anything other than Italian. It’s not a very pleasant household as the insecurities and low self-esteem that naturally accompany unemployment has gotten hold of his father and makes everyone else around him feel bad, particularly Tony. He has an elder brother who is a priest and is held in high esteem by his parents because of his profession. So naturally Tony is the “black sheep” of the family. I wouldn’t know how I would react if I had parents like these. When Tony brings home the news of a $4 raise, his father responds mockingly by saying, “Shit. $4. You know what $4 buys today? It don’t even buys $3.” The friends he hangs out with are no good either. They are either horny most of the time or behaving like animals at public places. Not an ideal way to live your youth. The only place where Tony feels really alive is on the dance floor.
Then there is Annette, the frustrated female member of his gang, who is constantly vying for his attention and is confused about whether to be a nice girl or a slut. When Tony spots a woman called Stephanie and her impressive dancing skills at the club, he becomes instantly smitten by her. She rejects him as they both are from totally different worlds. To her, Tony is a loser who lacks class and intelligence. For him (and us), she is a snob afflicted by a slight case of narcissism. However, she slowly accepts his offer to be his dancing partner and compete together for an upcoming dance competition. It’s hard to look at their relationship as expanding beyond friendship. Their conversation is always awkward and the only time he can have a proper conversation with her without getting embarrassed is when they both are practicing their dancing. His relationship with these two women and his friends becomes complicated as the story progresses. Meanwhile, the situation at his home becomes worse when his brother quits the priesthood. His mother is distraught and can’t stand the thought of someone shattering her faith.
I once mentioned in my review of the 1955 film Marty that Italian-American families resemble Indian families so much, mine included. This is a story about confused and trapped individuals whose decisions and choices are influenced by others. There are certain parts in this that hit too close to home. There is a Tony Manero in every young Indian kid out there. The role that Travolta plays here, that of the working-class hero struggling to break free of his monotonous existence and looking to make a name for himself has been seen before in few other films as well, most notably On the Waterfront and Rocky. Now that I’ve brought up Rocky, I have to mention the fact that it was the director of the original Rocky, John G. Avildsen, who was supposed to direct this film but a falling out with the producer caused him to pull out weeks before principal photography was about to begin. However, they did honor him by placing a poster of Rocky on the wall of Tony’s bedroom. The other Rocky connection here is that Sylvester Stallone directed the sequel to SNF called Staying Alive, which ended up as one of the major disasters in Travolta’s career.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the immaculate soundtrack by the Bee Gees. This is the film that turned me into a devoted Bee Gees fan forever. I have most of their albums and obviously, this soundtrack is my favorite of them. I have to listen to the tracks “Staying Alive”, “Heartbreaker” and “How Deep Is Your Love” at least once every day. The Bee Gees went on to write the title track for another John Travolta hit, a musical called Grease in 1978. The disco genre may be dead but it is still “staying alive” in many of our hearts even today.