Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna (June-July 2017). — J.R.
Dave Kehr has aptly described it as a “1977 update of Rebel Without a Cause” and a “small, solid film, made with craft if not resonance”. But it’s also a dance musical and the hit that catapulted John Travolta to stardom after a brief career in theater and on television (notably on Welcome Back, Kotter).
There’s a manic-depressive side to most musicals—a tendency to navigate mood swings from depression to exhilaration and back again–that’s observable in everything from Swing Time to The Band Wagon to La La Land. Saturday Night Fever takes that pattern to an unusual extreme in the way it oscillates between a view of Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood as a version of hell on earth whose residents devote all their waking hours to humiliating one another and the heavenly, utopian lift and glory of dancing at one of its discotheques called 2001 Odyssey. Most people who fondly remember this movie are likely to focus on the latter and think less about the former, but it’s the relation between these two registers that gives the movie its energy.
The screenplay by Norman Wexler (Joe, Serpico, Mandingo) is derived from an article in New York magazine (“Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”) whose author, British rock critic Nik Cohn, admitted two decades later was more invented than observed. But John Badham’s direction–five minutes longer in the director’s cut showing–grounds its details in a wholly believable world. Unlike most musicals, Saturday Night Fever makes few excursions into pure fantasy; perhaps the only one occurs when Tony (Travolta) and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) kiss during their climactic competitive dance. Furthermore, the movie’s climactic dance performance is less this one than Tony’s earlier solo during the night at the disco when Stephanie fails to show up. As Jerry Lewis implied when he parodied this number in Hardly Working, the kind of fantasy sparked by Travolta’s dancing is more solipsistic than romantic —an assertion of lonely triumph.