DVD of the Week: Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Tony getting down....

Yes… THAT Saturday Night Fever!  The much maligned 1977 John Travolta vehicle that sent polyester hearts afire back in the shimmering age of disco when men were pigs, women were willing and New York was a decaying creature.  Chances are you either have not seen this film or haven’t seen it in a long long time… but you should.

Why should you watch this film dedicated to disco and the excess of the 70’s?  Because it is an amazing look at not only a period of time that seemed to be the end of times, but a wonderful movie delving into the existential crisis of one man who needs an escape… and eventually attempts to escape from the very thing that has coddled him his entire life.

Tony Manero (John Travolta before the healing hands of Scientology, before Tarantino remade his career and immediately after Welcome Back Kotter) works in a paint store in order to make enough money to blow it all at the night club on Saturday night… the one place where he can be the focus of attention and do what he does best… dance!  His life consists of an Italian family… father doesn’t understand him, his mother goes on and on about her priest son… the priest is having doubts… and his father messes with his hair.  On top of that he has his pals from the neighborhood… goof balls with ill intentions… stupid, racist, provincial in ways that can only occur in ghettos of a sort.  But when he steps onto the dance floor… magic happens… seriously, that dude could dance…. watch…

It’s when he sees one woman dancing in particular, the falsely snobby Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), that he realizes he needs a partner good enough to match his talents… and ultimately, allow him to escape the boroughs of his youth and perhaps have a chance at something larger.  His language is rough… hers comes off as sophisticated, but not from an honest place.  He is crass… she attempts to be above it all.  Eventually they partner up to win the big dance contest.

Along the way, Tony learns to become a bit disenfranchised with his existence… it’s not the dancing that saves Tony in the end… it’s his maturing and becoming more self aware of his limits within his current life that propel this story… and it ends on a note that would never happen in a more modern movie… it ends on a quiet contemplative note after a night of soul searching (and riding the subway to the sounds of the Bee Gees) when he opens himself up to not being a prick and can imagine a world where a woman can be his friend and not just another hoo-wore.

I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack… a double album when it was released… and it skyrocketed on the charts.  I’m not sure how many singles came off of it… and how many times it went platinum… but I still pop it on every so often and I can’t help but start grooving and busting out into the whole point and thrust dance moves made so famous in that white polyester suit.

I cannot stress enough what an amazing movie this is… thoughtful, emotional, dramatic yet very real… even when it seems completely unreal from the perspective of 2011.  Could people really have dressed like that?  Did line dancing really just spontaneously happen like that?  I was but a wee lad when it came out originally… my mom took me to a drive in when it was released so she could see it… all I recall were his boots and the song Staying Alive before I fell asleep.  According to my mom she fell asleep shortly thereafter. 

It was years before I ever saw it… then many more years later that I finally saw the original R rated version… which for some reason was unavailable for ages.  It’s the R rated version that is the must see.  Gritty… raw… profane and violent… and it peaks towards the end of the film when Tony’s existential crisis truly kicks off.  First a gang fight that was started on false pretenses… then a rigged dance contest based on racial stereotyping and locals only attitudes… followed by a date rape then a death.  This is not a light hearted film about disco dancing… it’s a harsh and difficult journey of one man trying to become something better than he is by breaking away from where he is coming from.  Good luck finding such a nuanced and beautiful performance these days.

Stop laughing… and get a copy… buy it, rent it or stream it… just see this movie.

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother you’re,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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