It’s bloodied bell bottoms and broken dreams in John Badham’s startling portrayal of New York City life
If the civil rights movement peaked during the late-1960s, then the following decade provided the fallout. By the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the counterculture movement had all but dissolved, but sections of American society had changed irrevocably, giving birth to a generation with different beliefs and aspirations. For perhaps the first time in America’s history, citizens were unwilling to advocate war based on patriotism alone, and for many, Catholic traditions had become an outmoded burden, youngsters no longer satisfied with making ends meet and marrying their neighbour. With the growth of popular culture, there was a brave new world out there just waiting to be explored, and kids couldn’t turn on a television or radio without hearing about it.
For a young Italian-American living with his Catholic parents in Brooklyn, New York, the repercussions of those changing times are hard to bear. Tony Monera (John Travolta) is a typical working class kid stuck in a dead-end job, more concerned with fixing his hair and chasing tail than learning responsibility. Instead of crucifixes, pictures of celebrities adorn his walls, Jesus Christ replaced by superstars such as Bruce Lee, Al Pacino, and, most notably, Rocky Balboa — figures of inspiration who prove much more tangible. Despite his brash demeanour and tough guy pretensions, at 19 Tony is little more than an impressionable kid, a fact that reduces his dreams and desires to hopeless and misguided fantasies.
Like John G. Avildsen’s Oscar-winning Rocky, this is an underdog story about a young man who is made for better things, and the use of Balboa’s image serves to punctuate this. It also gives Saturday Night Fever an added layer of authenticity, making a gritty affair like Rocky seem almost fantastical by comparison. Unlike Balboa, Monera is not on the road to fame and fortune. He is stuck between a rock and a hard place, torn between the burden of his parents’ low expectations and the will to make his own decisions in life. At one point, Tony gives a detailed description of a Brooklyn bridge to the girl whose affection will ultimately liberate him. On the surface it seems like a young kid’s attempts at flirtation, a ruse to convince the girl that he is worthy of her affections, but his almost futile attention to detail tells us that he has stared at this bridge many times over, that he has imagined what life is like on the other side.
Tony Monera [to his father] – You know how many times someone told me I was good in my life? Two. Twice. Two fucking times. This raise today, and dancing. Dancing at the disco. You sure as fuck never did!
Such desires are alien to Tony’s god-fearing parents, but the boy has found his own religion, and his church is the dance floor. He may be a bum in the eyes of his out-of-work father, but on the Brooklyn club scene the kid is already a star. His friends are little more than drunken hoodlums questing for kicks and pussy, the kind who only serve to prove their elders’ conservatism right, but there is more to our protagonist than others give him credit for. He may be vain and brash and borderline disrespectful, but it is all a part of his physical performance. When he struts along the high-street carrying cans of paint, people see a go-nowhere punk with the wrong priorities, but when he steps onto the dance floor the ladies part like the red sea, and the harsh realities of inner city life fade under the glow of the disco lights. Monera has found something that he believes in, and which in turn threatens to leave him believing in himself.
Of course, reality is a much different prospect. The glitz and glam may hold up for a few hours but beneath the gloss of chemical highs New York is an unforgiving place for the young and directionless — particularly for a working class kid whose family lives under a cloud of moral shame. For Tony’s parents, image is everything too, but while their son finds his identity wearing bell bottom trousers and platform shoes, they daub themselves in the cloth of Catholicism, investing all of their pride in Tony’s older brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar), a person who has spent his entire life lurching in the shadow of expectation just to allow them some kind of worth in a repressed community that is married to the church. Monero’s neighbourhood is the kind of skid row environment that drags you through the dirt and drowns your aspirations. In fact, production was almost brought to a halt when a real-life, mafioso group attempted to extort protection money from the crew. Whether a small firebomb that later hit the nightclub where many of the scenes were shot was never determined.
Director John Badham does a remarkable job of highlighting the highs and lows of city life, capturing the feel-good factor of the disco community but also the estrangement of a generation caught in the confusion of changing values as oppressive traditions loom large. Saturday Night Fever may be dressed in disco balls, but away from the dance floor it is a production of astounding authenticity that thrills and devastates in equal measures. The movie is perhaps most famous for its iconic soundtrack, but its Bee Gees led disco revolution proves more than just a commercial embellishment, acting as a platform for the period’s dance hall culture, but also conveying the togetherness and desperation as youth’s lust for intimacy makes its fragile rounds.
Saturday Night Fever was a phenomenon at a time when disco fever was sweeping the nation. When the film debuted, Paramount arranged for an old-fashioned Hollywood premier at Mann’s Chinese theatre, and fans took to the streets in their screaming droves. It was the biggest, most spectacular opening in years, but of all the celebrities looking to hog the limelight, it was the film’s streetwise protagonist who the people came to see. Everybody wanted to dress like John Travolta after Saturday Night Fever. Men wanted to be him and women longed to share his spotlight. This was no phoney pretending he could to dance. You marvel at every inch of rebellious flamboyance. This kid is the real deal. In order to achieve the required fitness for a such and energetic turn, Travolta would run for two miles everyday, perfecting his live wire disco moves with daily, three-hour dance sessions. The actor worked so hard to master his astonishing ‘You Should Be Dancing’ routine that he threatened to quit after the studio suggested the scene be re-shot in close-up. Were they seeing what we saw?
Tony Manero: You know, Connie, if you’re as good in bed as you are on the dance floor, I’ll bet you’re one lousy fuck.
Connie: Then how come they always send me flowers the next morning?
Tony Manero: ‘Cause most guys don’t know a lousy fuck when they’ve had one. Or I dunno. Maybe they thought you was dead.
Travolta delivers a star-making turn as Monera, earning himself an Academy Award nomination for best actor, but this is the kind of once in a lifetime performance that transcends any award. The strut, the attitude, the gaudy clothes and aggressive showboating, they transformed him into an emblem of late 20th century culture. Among the movie’s biggest admirers was respected film critic Gene Siskel, who would purchase the famous white polyester suit worn by Travolta for a mind-boggling $145,000,000, which speaks to the allure of the Monero character. Badham sets out to immortalise Monero from the offset, creating a character who would become woven into the very fabric of culture. Backed by one of the biggest-selling soundtracks in movie history, one packed with enough hits and genuine emotion to leave you dizzy with delight, Tony is rebellious and hubristic, defiant in the face of a sprawling metropolis that threatens to swallow him at every turn. Travolta projects a sweetness that allows us to empathise with a character who has violent, racist and misogynistic tendencies. Somewhere beneath the teeming frustrations and outward aggression, there is an individual who is desperate to spread his wings.
Shot against the grainy backdrop of the Big Apple’s rotten core, Badham’s Brooklyn is home to some tragic and highly relatable figures, a cast of relative unknowns who leave their proverbial blood on the dance floor. Annette (Donna Pescow) is infatuated with Tony and everything his weekend persona represents, and she mirrors his passion as a way to get close to him. When that doesn’t work, she offers to ‘make it’ with him, in spite of her Catholic origins and unwillingness to sleep around. When Tony eventually sees through her act and grows tired of her, she risks pregnancy and renouncement by allowing herself to be used by his friends. In a world of changing moralities, she is mired in indecision.
Another of the community’s repressed figures comes in the form of Tony’s friend, Bobby (Barry Miller). Bobby has already got his girlfriend pregnant, and afraid of the prospect of fatherhood he has nobody to turn to. Drowning in the demands of his family and the church, he toils with his frustrations inwardly, a peripheral figure among a group of self-serving friends who have yet to come up against any real consequence. Even Tony’s brother, Frank Jr., fails to heed his call while struggling with his own decision to abandon the priesthood, and by the time the world acknowledges Bobby’s problems, salvation has already passed him by.
Tony Monera – There are ways of killing yourself without killing yourself.
Tony and eventual squeeze Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) are both victims of those changing times too, but in an environment of insecurity and isolation they are lucky enough to have found each other. Travolta is a revelation as the cocksure, yet deeply conflicted kid with the drive to improve himself, and though flash among his many superficial admirers, in Stephanie he finds someone who not only understands his passion but shares it, their intimate rehearsals in a dingy, rented studio bathed in the dreamy filter of perfect harmony.
Asides from those moments, their relationship is a largely dysfunctional one, but the two have much more in common than the older Stephanie is willing to accept. Stephanie has long since fled the nest and boasts of her Manhattan lifestyle, desperate to cast off the kind of thick Brooklyn accent that paints an altogether different picture. She drinks tea because it is more refined. She talks of the big city and the flash crowds she runs with, mocking Tony for his uncouth persona, but when she tells him he is no one going nowhere she seems to be talking to herself. Stephanie has been where Tony is and never wants to go back there. In some ways he is a reminder of what she struggled to leave behind, but in the end there is more of the boy in her then anyone in her new life, and it is Tony’s unabashed honesty that allows her to recall her true self and finally feel appreciated for who she is.
This is raw, uncompromising filmmaking that never allows itself to become sympathetic, but whenever I think of Saturday Night Fever, I mostly think of the music and the dancing and the iconic performance of a dazzling John Travolta. I remember Tony strutting along to Stayin’ Alive as his time to shine flickers on the Brooklyn horizon, and the way in which he commands the dance floor in the face of a society that has condemned him to obscurity almost as a birthright. Most of all, I remember those moments of fleeting bliss that he shares with the one person in his life who truly understands him, and that human capacity to shed life’s despair for what is truly important.
The fact that production was temporarily halted so Travolta could attend the funeral of girlfriend Diana Hyland is rather poignant, and no doubt had a bearing on the star’s performance. It was Hyland who had encouraged Travolta to accept the role of Manero. I’m sure he thinks about her every day.