VHS Revival revisits a cultural phenomenon of devastating authenticity.
If the 1960’s gave birth to civil rights, then the following decade provided the fallout.
By the time the Vietnam War came to an end in 1975, the counterculture movement had all but dissolved, but American society had changed irrevocably, giving birth to a generation with different beliefs and aspirations. Citizens were unwilling to advocate war based on patriotism alone, and for many the Catholic church would become an outmoded burden. Yesterday’s traditions had grown oppressive, and youngsters were no longer satisfied with making ends meet and marrying their neighbour. With the growth of television and popular culture, suddenly there was a big, wide world out there as mankind raced towards globalisation.
For a young Italian-American living with his Catholic parents in Brooklyn, New York, the repercussions of those changing times are hard to bear the brunt of. 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, while Jesus Christ is replaced by superstars such as Bruce Lee, Al Pacino, and, most notably, Rocky Balboa, which Saturday Night Fever is somewhat reminiscent of.
Dan Fusco – You can’t fuck the future. The future fucks you.
Like John G. Avildsen‘s Oscar-winning picture, 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, but it also gives Saturday Night Fever an added layer of authenticity, making a largely gritty affair like Rocky seem 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.
Tony 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, and Monera has found something that he believes in, and which threatens to leave him believing in himself. He may be vain and brash and 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 working class life fade under the glow of the disco lights.
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!
Of course, reality is a much different prospect. The glitz and the 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 kid whose family lives under a cloud of 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), who has spent his entire life lurching in the shadow of expectation.
Director John Badham does a remarkable job of highlighting the highs and lows of city life, capturing the feelgood factor of the disco community, but also the estrangement of a generation caught in the confusion of changing values, as the oppressive traditions of the Catholic church loom large. This is a production of astounding authenticity which thrills and devastates in equal measures, while the movie’s iconic soundtrack proves more than just a commercial embellishment, acting as a platform for the period’s dance hall culture, but also conveying the togetherness and the desperation as youth’s lust for intimacy makes its fragile rounds.
Shot against the grainy backdrop of the Big Apple’s rotten core, Badham’s Brooklyn is home to some tragic and highly relatable figures, as a cast of relative unknowns 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 the 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 a passion to improve himself, and although flash among his many superficial admirers, in Stephanie he finds someone who not only understands his passion, but who shares in 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’s 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 on some level. Stephanie has been where Tony is, and she 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, which 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.