“Saturday Night Fever” turns 40; why the disco classic retains its staying power

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Dec. 12, 1977 – – the date when thousands of Americans witnessed John Travolta walking to the beat of the Bee Gees for the first time. As Tony Manero, Travolta embodied the dissatisfied youth of the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. His working-class environment could not keep him from becoming the best dancer he could be. Travolta’s Manero re-defined the idea of an American hero. He was young, dashing, and women wanted to dance with him, or just to wipe his sweat. “Saturday Night Fever” also lent disco some credibility. Every song in the soundtrack served to play up the onscreen action.

“Saturday Night Fever” succeeds not only as a disco movie but as a quintessentially American movie. The idea of self-determination, and wanting something better than what might be offered via tradition are the larger themes of the movie.

“Saturday Night Fever”: the opening

“Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees turned out to be Tony’s theme song. From the looks of Tony Manero’s outfit, no one would have guessed him to be a 19-year-old hardware store employee. Tony is restless, and he doesn’t really see a way out. His outward displays of “cool” – – the hair, the clothes, the moves, work to insulate him (temporarily) from his potentially bleak future.

So, he walks to a beat of a song called “Staying Alive.” It is what he is striving to do. That his footfalls seem to line up with the beat of the song only reinforces that this is a person at one with music. He swings the can of paint and shifts his shoulders all to the beat of one of the Bee Gees’ original songs for the movie. In some ways, Tony is a stereotype: he is a pizza-loving Italian American male in a black leather jacket. His outfit is punctuated by a gold necklace that rests in a swatch of chest hair. His black pants and jacket are offset by red shirt and boots.

The world of “Saturday Night Fever”

The star power and attractiveness of young Travolta as Tony Manero aside, the storytelling elements of “Saturday Night Fever” also effectively weave a cohesive narrative. From the very beginning, before viewers are treated to Tony doing his iconic walk, viewers are shown the gray world of Bay Ridge. The scenes of the bridge, trains, traffic and small shops tell viewers what kind of place Bay Ridge is. The setting’s colors shift from gray to brown. The dull color scheme becomes even more colorless when contrasted with Tony’s somewhat colorful outfits.

By showing audiences where the story takes place, the filmmakers essentially moved from general to specific. This “you-are-here” approach to storytelling helps viewers to get a sense of the kind of world Tony and his friends inhabit. Even those watching the movie in places far-removed from New York’s urban areas could get a sense of where the characters were.

Characters and plotlines: “Saturday Night Fever”

The cast of “Saturday Night Fever” is full of dissatisfied male characters, and female characters who sacrifice themselves too readily. Tony’s father is recently laid-off and bitter. He would rather see his family struggle than to let his wife work. Tony’s brother, Frank Jr., returns home after giving up the priesthood. When he compliments Tony’s dance moves, the words seem to really mean something to his brother.

Annette, Tony’s former dance partner, who develops an unrequited crush on him, offers her purity to all of Tony’s friends. The scene in which she confesses that she didn’t want to do it is particularly harrowing.

The movie even addresses the area’s racism. At the end, when Tony and Stephanie win the dance contest, he finds the Puerto Rican couple that earned second place and gives them the money. When Stephanie tries to protest, Tony explains that the other couple was better. His sense of doing the right thing further enhances Tony’s image as a working-class 1970’s hero.

Ultimately, “Saturday Night Fever” succeeds because against a backdrop of disco, realistic people are shown making decisions that affect their lives and those of their loved ones. The characters are three-dimensional and the soundtrack is unforgettable, and that’s why four decades later, people remember “Saturday Night Fever.”

 

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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