It seems inconceivable that forty years have slipped by since John Travolta walked down the street to the Bee Gees on the track singing Stayin’ Alive in Saturday Night Fever (1977), one of the great touchstone films of the seventies. People often forget that the young Travolta was nominated for an Academy Awards for his fierce, turbulent performance as the gifted young disco dancer trying to escape the hell of his lower class life and job in a paint store. Through the day, Tony (Travolta) is a clerk in a local shop but at night in the local disco 2001, he is the king of the dance floor, on a level the others are not.
Dancing is the only time Tony feels truly alive, his preparation a ritual, near Zen like as he showers, works to get his hair perfect, and then dresses, careful to choose the right necklaces to wear. When he arrives at the dance club, the crowds Part for him like he is Moses, giving him room on the floor to cut loose, and watching him is a thing of beauty. If disco was underground before the film came out, it certainly was not after, suddenly everyone was learning, but a Travolta made it look like art. With a partner or on his own he owned the dance floor and knew it, but was also bored no one could keep up.
When a cocky young girl, a Stephanie partners with him for a contest, under her mentorship he begins to think about getting out of Brooklyn, bettering himself. He begins to fall for her, but she is arrogant, believing herself better than him because she a job in Manhattan. Only through conversation does it become apparent she is as ignorant as he is, a laughing stock at work, but tough enough to stick it out because she wants to better herself. It takes a terrible tragedy to smack Tony in the head to truly look at where he is, and the Bee Gee tune quietly states, “I’m going nowhere”.
The life story he is living is that of thousands of young men, a dead end job, parents that look down on him because their older son joined the church and is forever referred to as Father Frank. Only his elderly grandmother truly loves him, he needs to escape. He and Stephanie can help one another but can Tony be friends with a girl? Is that possible?
Travolta was simply a revelation in the role, stunning audiences with his intensity, vulnerability, and genuine purity in his work. Light years from the TV sitcom Welcome me Back Kotter, he was now in the big leagues. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, overnight he became the most famous person on the planet. The National Society of Film Critics honoured him with their Best Actor Award, making his triumph of 1977 complete.
There was a new superstar in town and his name was a Travolta.The film, I feel, has never been fully appreciated for being a mirror of seventies culture and life. It is as though John Badham, a journeyman until he made this, plunked his cameras down in the middle Brooklyn and captured life. Raw, often vulgar, the language and portrayal of sexuality was harsh, and the treatment of women, though accurate was alarming.
One could see why Stephanie wanted out, and eventually why Tony, for his own good, needs to get out.
He must. And he does.
A gritty, cheaply made little film with a staggering impact that remains forty days later. The song score by the Bee Gees became one of the most iconic, decade defying albums of all time, for the songs Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, If I Can’t Have You, How Deep is Your Love, and others, none of which were nominated for Oscars. Yes you read that right, one of the most important soundtracks of the decade, hell of the last fifty years was ignored. Not a single song made the cut, though the sappy winner You Light Up My Life did, as did the immortal (sarcasm) title tune to The Goodbye Girl.
Take this film, bury it in a box for sixty more years and those that find it will understand at once what the seventies were like for youth.
1. The Opening Scene
In the opening moments of the film a star was born, exploding across the sky like a glorious zenith. Very few times in film history has an actor had such a remarkable birth of stardom. The camera starts on his feet, walking, walking, then the paint can he is carrying, and finally the face, that sensual Italian face with soft sensitive eyes and a killer smile. He orders two slices of pizza, stacks them atop the other, and keeps walking headed back to the hardware store where he works. Stayin’ Alive thumped on the soundtrack, each step matched the beat…stunning. And Brooklyn, alive, bustling with activity, diverse in culture, beautiful electrifying Brooklyn.
2. The Songs
Like a plunge back in time the songs of the film are a touchstone to the seventies, we here them and instantly identify with not only the film, but disco, the seventies, the Bee Gees and Travolta. The soundtrack became the greatest selling album of all time, there were several number one hits including How Deep is Your Love?, Stayin’ Alive, More Than a Woman, just three of the great tunes to emerge with the film. The Bee Gees were struggling when asked to do a song score but would never struggle again, in many ways becoming the face of disco music. Incredibly not a single song was nominated for an Oscar…not one from the film, ironic because they define a generation.
3. The Family
Blue collar, living in a cramped two story house on a quiet street in Brooklyn, they are the classic Italian American family. Tony’s bedroom is decorated with iconography of the seventies, Al Pacino, his closet stuffed with silk shirts, polyester, and his desk littered with gold chains. Family dinners are filled with conversations and near constant bickering and fighting. The contempt his father holds for him is very clear, but is it because Tony is brining in money and the older man is unemployed, or that he resents his sons’ youth? The mother exists to cook and cross herself every time she utters her eldest sons name, Father Frank. Nothing Tony does is good enough nor will it ever be. And slowly, with a mounting shame he realizes that very thing.
So familiar. The pizza place where Tony stops for pizza is still there, the stores are still there, everything looks the same and looming over it all, daring the inhabitants to escape is that impressive Bridge. Brooklyn is alive, teeming with life, constantly in motion, from the overhead subway that eventually moves under ground, through to the park which that glorious Bridge oversees, to the streets and homes, Brooklyn becomes a character in the film.
5. Shocking Misogyny
The single most shocking element of the film in conjunction with the vulgar language is the terrible treatment of women, young women in particular. Time limits are given for each guy in the back of the car for sex with girls they pick up, one desperate young woman, trying to get back at Tony is gang banged, raped really, and no one says a thing. Even Tony makes a move on Stephanie his dance partner, scaring her, placing their friendship in peril. The guys surrounding Tony, and to be fair Tony himself treat women as sex objects and little more. Only when Tony realizes respect is the key to having Stephanie in his life does he changed and begin to be a better man, able to be friends with a woman. The boys across the bridge back home in Brooklyn, could never do that.
At that point in his career, Travolta was best known as one of the sweathogs from TV’s Welcome Back Kotter. He had made a couple of films, Carrie (1976) the most successful, but no one was prepared for what happened when the film opened. Within a single week of the film’s opening Travolta was the hottest star in the business, unable to even walk down the street for fear, genuine fear of being mobbed. What astounded critics was his performance, miraculous, superb, defying all expectations. On the dance floor he was truly free, most alive, looking all around him, feeling increasingly trapped, knowing the only way out was across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. People often forget Travolta was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for the performance, winning the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor. He was the heart and soul of the film, and soared.
7. The Disco Sequences
In a word electrifying. Though the solos of Travolta are what we might remember, the pairing of Travolta and Karen Anne Gorney was superb as well, the most well matched pair since Astaire and Rogers. Once again dance became a language, more sexual than ever before, certainly with more heat than ever. And let’s not forget disco was new, something brand new from the underground clubs that exploded into the mainstream. Though it had a four year life, it was an extraordinary four years.
8. The Dancing
Who knew Travolta could dance? Not anyone apparently, but his boldly confident dance moves became the most extraordinary cinematic language using dance since West Side Story (1961). Tony is truly free, totally alive when on the floor and the envy of all who watch. No one in the dance club is even close to him, they know it, and he knows it, but what can he do with it? Has he the courage to cross the Bridge and strike out as a dancer?
9. The Dream of Something Better
“I’m going nowhere” sing the Bee Gees in the opening song of the film, the iconic Stayin” Alive which over the course of the film, Tony comes to realize. A dead end job, friends content to stay where they are, the same old thing, week after week, hour after hour. He lives only to dance at the club, that is when he is special. That looming Brooklyn Bridge becomes the yellow brick road to Tony, a way out. Is it just a dream or can he achieve it? Does he have that courage, to leave everything behind and start over again?
10. The Clothes, Shoes and Hair
Not only the three piece polyester suit became vogue, the white suit worn by Travolta became the most worn style of the next two years, along with stylish platform shoes. The look of the hair became all important, carefully coiffed, blown dried to perfection. Women wore sheer dresses, high heels, but I think what changed was dressing up to go to clubs reached into blue collar America.