Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
  • Time: 118 min
  • Genre: Drama | Music
  • Director: John Badham
  • Cast: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Joseph Cali


Nineteen-year-old Brooklyn native Tony Manero lives for Saturday nights at the local disco, where he’s king of the club, thanks to his stylish moves on the dance floor. But outside of the club, things don’t look so rosy. At home, Tony fights constantly with his father and has to compete with his family’s starry-eyed view of his older brother, a priest. Nor can he find satisfaction at his dead-end job at a small paint store. However, things begin to change when he spies Stephanie Mangano in the disco and starts training with her for the club’s dance competition. Stephanie dreams of the world beyond Brooklyn, and her plans to move to Manhattan just over the bridge soon change Tony’s life forever.


  • Saturday Night Fever is more than just an American dance film (as in disco dancing). It’s an intense drama, a restless character study, and overall, a movie of its time. Yes, it’s obviously a little outdated and John Badham’s direction is somewhat sporadic (some of the sequences veer into a sort of broken narrative). However, there is an urgency and accuracy in the culture this exercise depicts. Last but not least, you have John Travolta in a performance that in 1977, shot him into the stratosphere of acting prowess. Yes, he was excellent later on in Pulp Fiction, but in “Fever” his star shines as bright as anyone in the Hollywood galaxy. Its been over 35 years since the film’s release and Travolta has not come close to the brooding, anxious brilliance (he probably can dance just as good now, who knows) that he displayed as Tony Manero (“the king” or as one character notes, “the best”).

    Not necessarily plot driven as it is more driven by ideas and characters; Saturday Fight Fever’s concept is loosely based on a small article in New York Magazine (circa 1976). The article by Nik Cohn, is entitled “Tribal Rights of the new Saturday night.” As far as storytelling goes, “Fever” takes the bare bones of Cohn writings and walks you through the trials and tribulations of some Brooklyn 20-somethings which are on full display throughout the 2 hour-plus running time. Their leader, Tony Manero, looks forward to his weekends where he can strut his stuff on the dance floor to the powerful and seducing music brought to you by The Bee Gees. Throughout the proceedings, he is caught in a tensioned love triangle (actresses Karen Lynn Gorney and Donna Pescow are two dancers he gets involved with and they are excellent in their roles as well), hangs with his buddies (he refers to them as “the faces”) at the Brooklyn club 2001 A Space Odyssey (I’m serious), and feuds with his misunderstood parents who don’t really know him as a person. As many critics note (this critic as well), the central theme of Saturday Night Fever is bent on looking into Manero’s rough and irrelevant existence made only tolerable by snippets of glory here and there on the dance floor (and at a dance contest). I think what made the sequel (Staying Alive) such a mess (it was entertaining though, go figure), was how it failed to effectively put this aspect into motion. Sly Stallone directed Staying Alive and I think he missed the boat on Badham’s initial touch with atmosphere and grittiness. Plus, it works better when Travolta’s character stays away from doing shows on Broadway.

    Something also to note on “Fever”: On the heels of what was written in the aforementioned article, production started in early 1977. Badham wasn’t initially the director mind you. The original man behind the camera was John Advildsen (he directed Rocky). According to a documentary on the anniversary DVD, he was fired early on due to his initial vision of having Travolta’s title role being portrayed as a quote unquote, “a nice guy who does good things for people in the neighborhood.” The studios (along with the star’s input I’m certain) wanted a harder edge to Manero’s persona and I believe this is what makes this flick work (don’t expect something like Grease or his kooky, lovable tough guy from Welcome Back Kotter). You like Manero even though he is remarkably unlikable. This is due to Travolta’s high level of charisma and ability to cater to the mental and highly physical demands of the role. In fact, most of Travolta’s cronies in the film (unknown actors at the time but very natural on screen) also kind of exhibit this quality. And as in many great feats of cinema (including this one), they stay with you long after the closing credits appear.

    To wraps things up, the aspect about “Fever” that makes it one of the best films of the 70’s, is its realism. The characters don’t sugarcoat their actions. There is a cynical nature about all of them (especially Manero). Granted, this is not a cheerful dance production number where everyone has a good time at the club and then goes home to a happy life. These people (Tony’s family, friends, and even himself) have problems and a hollowing need to break away from their banal existence. Saturday Night Fever, focusing mainly on Travolta’s plight, can be categorized as a snapshot of a young man’s pride in his craft (shining at the discotheque) and the sad/troubling moments in between. It’s raw, reckless film making that dares you to embrace its rough edges. Truth be told, you come away from this film with memorable sounds, bright images, and unavoidable mental train wrecks. The look of its poster with Travolta and Gorney holding hands in the middle of the dance floor, doesn’t quite tell the whole story. You know there is more to “Fever” than just disco dancing. At the end of a scene taking place on the Verranzano-Narrows Bridge (connects Brooklyn to Staten Island), Travolta (Manero) says, “can you dig it, I knew that you could.” Yeah it’s safe to say, that I can ultimately dig this landmark film.

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  • As infrequently as some oldies tunes happen to pop up on the radio, there was a time when that’s all it was believe it or not. During the 1970s, the wave of disco joints multiplied by the day. Besides the 1960s and 1970s promoting peace and love, it also became a time where dancing was the “in” thing to do. Everybody was doing it. It was a craze that took a nation by storm where all people wanted to do was party and dance. For movies, the 1970s were also a time of many successes that have created quite an impact on today’s culture and society. One of the most widely popular films to be remembered from that era was Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). However for movies that capitalized on the dance wave at the time, the best known and respected film to represent such a time was this film. It does have some components that could’ve been left out or fixed but mostly it is an entertaining film of its time.

    Written by Norman Wexler (Serpico (1973)) and directed by John Badham (in his first feature film), the story is about a late teen named Tony Manero (John Travolta) who lives in a world where the only thing that matters to him is the weekend. He’s a nice kid at heart and works hard but just wants live his life in the present. During the day he works at a paint shop, later he hangs with his immature goof ball friends, gets badgered by an old flame named Annette (Donna Pescow) and then has the same dinner every night with his family of high expectations. What Manero looks forward to on the weekend are the disco dances. While attending a party one night he comes across a dancer who catches his eye named Stefanie (Karen Lynn Gorney). It’s at that moment Manero wants her to be his dance partner for a competition. For all the prior subplots going on around Manero, they do serve the purpose of character development but they also fall to the wayside over time.

    The reoccurring moral of the script is the power of choice. Everyone has a choice to be or do what he or she wants in life. Manero’s family wants him to become a priest like his brother Frank (Martin Shakar). Annette gets told numerous times by Tony that she has to decide on whether she’s going to act like a woman or a prostitute. Tony is also challenged on his beliefs by Stefanie and when his boss tells him to stop spending his money frivolously on the weekend. Stefanie even gets some of her own medicine thrown back at her. Tony friends are a gradual eye opener as well. Every single supporting/main character has a specific role to play when it comes to character development and it is handled properly. The problem is once the change in character occurs, the supporting threads and their respective characters disappear and aren’t concluded in the most direct of ways. The only other component to the writing is some of the slang dialog used. Yes, the 1970s were a much different time. However, this still does not excuse the fact of using various racial slurs.

    Other than this every other aspect to the film is enjoyable. The acting is competently performed. It is a bit jarring to see the difference in years when it comes to how much John Travolta changed. Also voice-actor Paul Pape has a role as one of Tony’s goof ball friends. The acting and writing also effectively capture the mood and attitude of the era. As stated before, disco was a craze at the time and many people hopped on the bandwagon just because everybody was doing it. Plus with all the issues surrounding Tony, going to the disco was also a good representation of how disco was an escapist activity for a lot of people. For the people who took part, it was a moment in time where people would forget about their troubles and just enjoy the night. The cinematography shot by Ralf D. Bode fit well with the scenes too. Bode was able to acquire a number of odd angles and establishing shots that in some ways felt like the camera was prepping the audience just as much as the scene was.

    The choreography handled by Lester Wilson was crafted nicely as well. A year before, Wilson worked on Sparkle (1976) which proved to be a success and it didn’t change here. Wilson’s ability to get the entire cast to work in synchronized motion is impressive. That and all the dance moves that Travolta and Gorney perform are well staged. It’s unimaginable how much practice went into making sure those dance numbers were done the right way in one shot. That takes patience. The music for this film is practically scoreless with only a few tunes composed by David Shire. The rest was handled by English pop group The Bee Gees (Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb). The movie itself would probably not be as memorable or popular if it weren’t for the numerous songs heard throughout the background. Songs like “Stayin’ Alive”, “Night Fever”, “How Deep Is Your Love” and “More Than a Woman” are just some of the songs that’ll stick in the viewers mind. It’s also interesting to watch the dancing with these songs because of the viewers’ knowledge of music, how sensual the emotions are in the performances.

    Unfortunately for its time it suffers from racial slurs that are still not excusable and its subplots are well written until they aren’t needed anymore leading to indirect conclusions. These flaws are thankfully made up for with the abundance of character development, appropriate acting, memorable music tunes and well-staged dance choreography. It is a time capsule that defined the 1970s.

    Points Earned –> 7:10

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