Thursday, October 14, 2010

Classic: "Saturday Night Fever" (1977)

It's a sure sign you're getting old when people don't get your cultural references.

I was surprised when some commentors to my last post didn't know about "The Honeymooners." To be fair, that show has been off the air for a while and, if you're young, there's no reason you would know about it. I have many friends in their 20's and I have to remind myself that many events I lived through happened before they were born.

Rather than rue this situation, I'm going to use this situation. As a new blog-feature, I'm going to dig into the past and alert you to gems of art that, because of their age, might have overlooked your notice. This will give you the chance to enjoy things worthy of attention.

I lived through the 1970's and that's my primary period of cultural reference. There was much to forget about that time, but there were also nuggets of excellence. If you weren't there, you might not know which are which.

Last weekend, close friends of mine told me about a bad experience they had watching a touted film from that era -- which I would have warned them against -- and their assumption that another movie -- which is fabulous -- might not be worth viewing. While I couldn't go back in time and stop them from seeing the bad film, I could recommend the good one. And that's the film I'm going to praise to you now:

"Saturday Night Fever" is a rare example of great art that becomes insanely popular. It hit at just the right moment in society where it captured the zeitgeist and entertained the heck out of people. I saw it in the theater on its release and recently re-watched it. The film holds up.

The movie is most commonly known for having the best and most exciting dance-sequence in the history of film. That scene alone makes is worth watching -- but there's more! Much, much more.

The film is a gripping drama, with multiple subplots, that work as a sociological study of life among the working-class in urban America. The story takes place in Brooklyn, where a young, talented dancer tries to overcome his environment and make something out of his life. It's a classic American story.

What really knocks you out is the verisimilitude of the depiction of that place. The script grew out of a non-fiction magazine article on working-class youth in Brooklyn called "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night." If it wasn't so incredibly entertaining, you might believe the movie is a documentary; it's that realistic.

Also, it's raw. Surprisingly so. The movie contains rough language and scenes that wouldn't be shown in the theater today. The atmosphere of that world is toxic and the depictions of bigotry and misogny are as extreme as they are depressing. Cruelty and idiotic behavior are shown in their unvarnished form.

And yet amid the ruins are flowers struggling to grew through the cracks: individuals striving to transcend the neighborhood of their birth. They are able to see Manhattan from their perch and it functions as a fantasyland where their dreams of a better life might exist. These people are the "bridge-and-tunnel" crowd whom cultured New Yorkers disdain as ignorant and uninvited.

The movie launched two careers: John Travolta and The Bee Gees. Both soared into the stratosphere on the fame of SNF.

Travolta, two years earlier, had acquired a little attention for his work as class-clown Vinnie Barbarino in an awful TV comedy, "Welcome Back, Kotter." His work in SNF, as vain but admirable Tony Manero was entirely unexpected by everyone. His performance was so amazing that he was nominated for an Oscar in 1978 as Best Actor. After SNF, Travolta had his pick of Hollywood roles (and has made 60 films since).

The soundtrack is full of Bee Gees songs which closely-entwined in the story. With the movie's success, The Bee Gees became popular music stars.

Travolta was relatively unknown at the time of SNF and the rest of the cast was completely unknown -- a fact which makes the film work better, because you believe you're seeing actual characters and not actors playing roles. The characters are so engrossing that, even when you hate them, you can't help but be mesmerized by them.

I highly recommend SNF, but with the caveat that it has some rough drama in it. That isn't reason to avoid the film and, in fact, those scenes are highly engaging. And that dance scene!

The famous dance scene was shot in full-body because, after months of training, Travolta wanted everyone to believe it was him actually dancing and not a double. There's no editing or closeups which makes the dancing all the more impressive. And some of the dance-moves created for the film are still being used at parties today!

Have you seen the film? Do you want to?


  1. I understood yesterday's reference, though I've never seen a full episode. SNF sounds wonderful from your description. I used to watch Welcome Back Kotter reruns as a teen, but I'm much more of a MGM musicals girl. Did you know Fred Astaire also had the "head to foot" clause in his movie contracts?

  2. Yes, and it makes a difference: it adds authenticity to the dancing.

  3. I knew The Honeymooners - I've seen clips on TV. I also watched "Welcome Back, Kotter" when I was a kid, but I didn't see SNF until about 20 years ago - and I was shocked at the grittiness of it. I adore the music (love disco) and have the soundtrack on vinyl. Nothing sounds as good as vinyl!

  4. Absolutely. Vinyl has a fuller, rounder sound than CDs or compressed digital. You have good taste, Sheila!

  5. I love The Honeymooners! It's wonderful. And Saturday Night Fever is a great movie. The drama completely threw me off guard as I thought it was just going to be a typical "dance movie," but it is very unique. But I always crack up when John Travolta says "Will you just watch the hair?!?!" at the dinner table in the beginning.

    Great review!!

  6. I love that line! It's perhaps my favorite in the movie because it so defines the character and is funny, to boot.

  7. I had not heard of the Honeymooners :(
    But I have heard of this movie ! I was born in the 70's .... I cannot remember seeing this film.

  8. I haven't seen SNF, but Hubby has, I think. I'll have to get on that. And I remember "Welcome Back Kotter" very well- my parents used to watch it when I was a kid.

  9. I am actually ashamed to admit that I have never watched it. I have heard about it from my mom and dad and how they used to try and copy the dance moves. However growing up I did listen to the Bee Gees and still love them till this day.

    As soon as I get a TV I am watching this movie.:)

    Love from Toronto, Canada

    P.S: I have actually never met another person whose birthday is also on the same day. I'll definitely add one more candle to my cake. :)

  10. Having a birthday on November 3rd means you're special, buddy!