“Fuck the Future”: John Badham’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’, 1977

Reviews / January 18, 2018

GRASSO: I’m finding Saturday Night Fever a surprisingly slippery text to analyze in 2018. I rewatched it for this piece and it just seems like such an odd document. It’s not so much that it feels alien: the aspirational, ethnic, working-class swagger of Tony Manero is still with us today, as cultural myth if nothing else. And the plot, such as it is, is the template for countless subsequent “local boy makes good”/raunchy teen sex comedies of the 1980s (with a heavy dose of melodrama crossed with kitchen sink realism, of course). I think what’s hardest to crack today is the film’s (and soundtrack‘s) total cultural omnipresence in those waning years of the 1970s.

Even as someone who was not fully conscious—culturally or otherwise—in 1977, the wake of Saturday Night Fever was massive, whether it was being surrounded by those Bee Gees hits on radio and the cover image of the soundtrack LP on my older female cousins’ bedroom walls in the late ’70s/early ’80s, or the remnants of the film’s most visually powerful sequences used parodically in pop culture in the decades following the film. There was Airplane! in 1980, the Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies” video in 1989, and Dirk Diggler’s Manero-esque posing in his bedroom in 1997’s Boogie Nights, among countless others. It’s pretty hard to understand how one cultural property—and, in retrospect, one as threadbare and hardscrabble as so much of Saturday Night Fever admittedly is—can be such a cultural touchstone, echoing down the generations. Perhaps it was the synergy with the larger disco movement, or maybe a once-in-a-lifetime case of capturing lightning in a bottle… but isn’t it kind of amazing to consider that this rough little film shot on the streets of Bay Ridge was a worldwide phenomenon?

ROBERTS: Saturday Night Fever is a misunderstood film, first off. I suspect it endures in the popular imagination as simply “the disco movie,” and that’s largely how it was perceived when it came out, partly because the soundtrack hit the shelves first and dominated the airwaves. Travolta’s white suit, the dancing, the club, the lights and colors, the Bee Gees—that’s what’s remembered. But really the movie belongs—or wants to belong—to that gritty realism of New Hollywood’s portrayal of New York City, and it has quite a bit in common with Martin Scorsese’s early work. Just compare De Niro’s/Bickle’s “Are you talkin’ to me?” monologue from Taxi Driver to Travolta/Manero ritualistically prepping for the disco in Saturday Night Fever. (Alternately, I have to wonder if Scorsese’s famous tracking shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco entering the Copacabana in GoodFellas was partly inspired by the first time we see Tony Manero enter the discotheque in Saturday Night Fever.)

When we first see Tony, he’s strutting down the tough streets of Brooklyn. His clothes are beautiful, his hair is perfect, and he knows it. He stops to look at some shoes, puts five bucks down on a blue shirt he sees in the window. But we see that he’s holding a paint can, and we find out it’s because he works a dead-end job in a paint store, which is where he’s headed. That can holds him down. It’s an albatross. And that is the movie. This kid’s only escape from his “goin’ nowhere” existence is dancing, and he knows he can’t dance forever. When it came out, Saturday Night Fever played the same role for the beat-up recession-era audience as the disco club played for Tony. It was a fantasy; an escape. We just buried the part that told us the escape was an illusion.

MCKENNA: Mike’s right, Saturday Night Fever is a slippery creature, because while it might not be what it’s generally considered to be, it’s also never quite what I remember it being. I’ve probably seen it five times in all, and it’s played differently each time—during the most recent viewing, all I could think of was George Romero’s Martin (1978). That, and just how objectified (and also, let’s face it, gorgeous) Travolta is throughout: that opening strut along the sidewalk, his feet slapping the pavement in time with the music—still an impossibility back in those pre-Walkman times—shot from below (the first of several similar shots) like some sort of imposing statue, only to have his ineffectuality highlighted by his jerk-like attempt to pick up an unimpressed woman he meets on the street. It’s the same all the way through: the camera and his peers gawp at him like he’s a god, but at the same time we’re constantly being reminded that he’s a none-too-bright object with a short shelf-life, and he knows it. He tries to act like he’s the player but spends most of his time being talked down to, mauled or ignored by all and sundry, as the scene where Fran Drescher, hand on his backside, drags him off for a dance underlines. His curse is that he’s actually self-aware enough to know it.

The film’s such a Wunderkammer that it’s hard to work out what’s deliberate and what isn’t: is the actors’ workshop schtick of the gang’s interactions meant to resemble braying animals barking out the same sounds again and again, or is it just annoyingly badly improvised? Is the scene where the dry ice begins to rise from the floor as the denizens of the disco start dancing in time a metaphor for… something? Or is that just what it looks like if you film people disco dancing in 1977? It’s a sensation I often get with the films of director Badham—it’s as though he possesses an accidental yet almost supernatural talent for picking out pertinent aspects of the day and throwing them together to produce films which, though superficially and notionally mainstream, rarely scan that way. Despite their surface realism, they’re surprisingly dreamlike, SNF in particular, so it’s not really a surprise the whole thing was based on a made up story written by someone who wasn’t even an American anyway. It’s like a series of fictions cascading down through a series of filters from the brain of a middle-class outsider and foreigner trying to invent a meaning for a world he doesn’t understand.

Actually, rather than Martin, Saturday Night Fever plays more like some kind of strange corollary to The Exorcist, where the terrifying invisible entity is the future. (“Fuck the future,” Manero tells his boss early in the film. “You can’t fuck the future,” his boss responds. “The future fucks you.”) Perhaps it’s the overlap of modern malaise, clergy, and Old World that’s making me feel that way, Mike? (And, a propos of nothing, how adorable is nonna when she loses her rag and shouts “basta!”?)

GRASSO: Oh, I suppose it’s down to me to address “the Italian-American thing” in this movie. First off, an absolute indisputable fact: the Maneros’ home is a spitting image of my grandparents’ house in East Boston in the ’70s—the Catholic decor, the dark wood-paneled walls, the cheap mid-century ceramic place settings, that sense of Old World clutteredness—to say nothing of the arguments at the dinner table and the gigantic plates of pasta. Tony is two generations away from his Italian-speaking nonna, his folks pragmatically assimilating to America through hard work (Tony’s father) and religious devotion (Tony’s mother), both methods somewhat failing them as we see over the course of the movie. Tony’s gap with his family is generational and cultural: Tony Manero is the ur-Italian-American, the strutting, cocksure (kind of dumb) model of media stereotypes for decades to come.

Richard mentions something important: the blatantness and earthiness of the dialogue. Are the portrayals of Tony’s crew realistic? These are young, working-class men barely out of adolescence whose views of gender roles and sexuality have been shaped by a dual Italian-American culture marked by extreme machismo. It’d be a wonder if they weren’t egging each other on to get laid in the most primitive terms possible. Masculinity and masculine sexuality, though: maybe that’s the enigma at the center of SNF. Whether it’s Tony’s uncanny code-switching between his strutting rooster of a self and his lithe, feminine dancing style, whether in the studio or on the light-up floor of 2001 Oddyssey (sic), or big brother Frank’s crisis of faith centered around his celibacy, or the brutal, shocking rape of Annette, all kinds of (eventually deadly) toxic masculinity are on display. It’s only on the dance floor that Tony shows any glimmer of imagination or generosity or nurturing. His friends don’t even have that. They’re utter brutes, doomed to live fast and die young.

ROBERTS: Speaking of utter brutes, I think we need to mention Rocky here, a low-budget blockbuster (the highest-grossing film of 1976) about a not-so-bright working-class Italian-American—the consummate underdog—who cleans up his act and becomes a champion. That competition element is certainly a part of Saturday Night Fever, as is the urban drama. Really, I think Badham (or more likely the studio) wants it both ways. He wants the feel-good, against-all-odds story about the underclass scrapper who makes good, and he wants the message tragedy of a Mean Streets or Who’s That Knocking at My Door (Roger Ebert pointed out the similarities between the latter film, Scorsese’s directorial debut, and SNF). I think that’s why the film seems kind of uneven, or even dream-like, as Richard mentions. Or maybe that irony is what makes it brilliant—because it is brilliant, even though much of it bothers me and I don’t buy the ending.

What bothers me is this idea that portraying toxic masculinity—call it bad male behavior if it makes you feel better—is a statement against toxic masculinity. With very few exceptions, it’s bullshit. And this applies to much of Scorsese’s work as well. These assholes are exhausting on screen, and I’ve seen too many men try to emulate them in real life. I understand that it was (in this case) the 1970s. I understand that it’s art. I understand that art is not responsible for bad behavior. Still, let’s call it what it is: a body of apologetics for the allegedly “hardwired” male animal that became dogma under the cover of “social realism.” The irony is that the disco fad so closely associated with machismo in SNF culminated in a shock-jock organized event in 1979 called Disco Demolition Night, a publicity-stunt-turned-riot at a baseball game in which disco records were destroyed and self-described rock fans physically and verbally expressed their disdain for what was perceived in the mainstream as “gay” music that originated in black, urban nightclubs.

MCKENNA: I couldn’t agree more about how draining those displays of a certain type of performative perceived masculinity are (and that there are so many of them in Scorsese’s films that it can feel as though that’s what they’re actually about), but despite Tony’s many failings, he is in some way set apart from all that: his sinuous elegance marks him out as different from the rest of the chumps the same way his talent does. As does the way he searches for a dance partner where the rest of the gang are just after getting their rocks off. It might be a courtship ritual, but dance, as Tony practices it, is the opposite of the impulsive Iron Age rituals the others indulge in: even the owner of the dance school Tony frequents implies that the only reason a normal guy would be involved in something as unmanly as dancing is to get laid (or at least, that’s his cover). But it never feels like that’s what’s driving Tony.

Dance has always been a big part of working-class and lower-middle-class life, especially since the birth of modern popular mass culture. When the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s transformed it into something that promoted self-expression over skill, losing control became the whole point, but disco reintroduced “moves” that could be watched, learned, and perfected—control of your body; and,I suppose that in some ways, we could read the dancing in SNF as control. Tony only has a brief window of it, and he knows it. As weirdly as it sits with his troglodyte ways, is it possible that Tony and his nonna are actually both, in their way,  representatives of a culture of control and discipline, as opposed to the ignorance and hypocritical sanctimony of his parents, the path of least resistance taken by his brother and the mindless animal idiocy of his friends?

My own recollection of the ’70s is that dance—as opposed to nightclubbing, which is a different beast—was ubiquitous: everywhere you looked there seemed to be someone dancing, whether it was a dance troupe on telly, the weekly disco at the youth club or my nana going off to do ballroom with her pals. With that in mind, something else struck me while I watched SNF this time—the echoes in Tony of one of the dancers who symbolized the decade: Rudolph Nureyev (and I suppose to some extent the more recently-defected Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in another dance film The Turning Point, which had been released a month to the day before SNF). Nureyev too was the child of another culture, famously given to impulsive, boorish behavior, and also shared Tony’s love of synthetic fabrics. The echoes are there in the cod-Hopak which is part of Travolta’s “You Should Be Dancing” routine, and at one point in the film, someone even greets Tony with, “Hello Nureyev.”  It makes you wonder about a Tony Manero in a world where Tony Maneros are given the chance to develop their gifts the way Nureyev was; but, as things stand, Manero has to make of himself what he can—which, in fine ’80s high ironic style, turned out to be an oiled-up Tarzan in the employ of Rocky and Rambo in 1983’s Staying Alive. For its duration, though, Saturday Night Fever is Travolta—so much so that I’d be interested in watching a digitally-redacted version where all the other humans have been removed.

As we said at the beginning, SNF is elusive—it slips away from you the moment you try and grasp it: if I want to like it, I find myself hating it; if I think I’m going to hate it, I find things in it that make me want to watch it again more carefully. Even though, like I said, I’m not actually sure any of that was Badham’s intention.

GRASSO: I’ve been talking in our group chat all week about how the songs of the soundtrack have been chasing me through my head since reviewing the film. “If I Can’t Have You” by former Mary Magdalene Yvonne Elliman, has been just zapping a group of neurons holding my very earliest memories, making me think of trips in the family station wagon, the car radio tuned to Top 40 radio. They’re faint, faint recollections, but they’re there. The Bee Gees suffered from overexposure and backlash in the years following SNF, but their songs on the soundtrack are still dynamite. They’re impeccable pop masterpieces, beating with real blood and guts under those shimmery surfaces. I don’t know about you, but there’s something profoundly unnerving about the Gibbs’ voices, rising or falling in pitch as they maintain harmony. This near-keening charges the Bee Gees’ music with an uncanny libidinal energy. It matches that same manic atmosphere when Tony and his crew are on the screen: sharpening those primitive impulses to fight, fuck, or flee. As Richard notes, it’s only Tony who can control those urges and channel them, for a little while, on the dance floor.

As tough as this little film is, when John Travolta gets on the screen, he’s legitimately mesmerizing. I know that the effort given to the dance scenes in this film involve as much careful production and editing as the massive choreographed numbers in old Hollywood musicals did, but at the same time… the way Travolta is able to move his body! They say the world changed when Michael Jackson did his moonwalk at the Motown Anniversary show; I’d argue that Travolta’s solo routine to “You Should Be Dancing” is just as epochal. Maybe both of these pop culture events are really bookends to that special era, 1977-1983, when dancing was more than just a disposable way to spend a Saturday night. As Travolta’s sinuous, earthy, down-and-dirty dance began the disco era, Jackson’s rarified, celestial, lighter-than-air dance ended it.

9 thoughts on ““Fuck the Future”: John Badham’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’, 1977

  1. “his feet slapping the pavement in time with the music—still an impossibility back in those pre-Walkman times”
    On the contrary, that’s fully credible (I do it all the time) and sets the character from the get go. The music is in his head, all the time.

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  3. Stop sliding around and grip this tightly: SNF is not an enigma to be decoded as a hedge against the intellectual fear that it doesn’t make sense how it’s managed to escape it’s own built-in cultural irrelevancy and obsolescence, to be assimilated in the present as nothing more than affectless kitsch or a chronological reference point for outdated musical faddism. It is not a problem to be solved. It’s lasted for the purity of reasons that all true great works of art last; it is a prism though which an audience has achieved a profound emotional and spiritual catharsis through a fictive critique of “false life”, where a lie (fiction) has told the truth about the falsity of a social compact that is perceived as “real” but is an illusion. It is a film that presents a stage, the disco with it’s preening theatrics, as the identifiable modus operandi in which human beings put on masks and disguises, which represent the emotionless ease of acceptable and conditional social integration, and how those carefully constructed masks desperately falter when the true inchoate feelings of a false existence slowly crack through the façade. In the simplest terms, it sweeps the enforced and invisibly controlling institutions of demarcated leisure times, organized religion, class aspiration, family, fashion, gender roles, and the entire consumerist and capitalistic spectacle of “free Western democracy” into the collectively recognized nightmare of authoritarian and totalitarian control of the individual self, the self divided against itself with it’s own permission (“There are ways of killing yourself without killing yourself”) that was transmuted into the hearts and minds of it’s spectators through the power of it’s actors essaying the main character’s awakening to this “false life” in the mirror of his most slavish idolizer’s commensurate and needless self-destruction. It was this core, this howl of existential despair, that sold a million Bee Gees songs, consciously and unconsciously, never to repeat itself again.

    Barry Miller (Bobby C.)

    • Hi Barry,

      I agree with everything except your first two sentences! SNF is a brilliant film, and an enduring work of art, but all art is open to interpretation, and all art (if it survives) is reevaluated by successive generations many times over. I wouldn’t say art is a problem to be solved, but it is, in fact, an enigma that has to be decoded by each individual who cares enough to experience it.

      Thanks for the brilliant comment.


  4. From Vanity Fair’s 2017 Article ” The Alluring Darkness Beneath ‘Saturday Night Fever’s’ Disco Floor” by Nathan Rabin:1977’s Saturday Night Fever, the low-budget ethnography about Italian teenagers in some of Brooklyn’s sketchier neighborhoods, wasn’t just a movie about disco: it was THE movie about disco. The white suit John Travolta’s upstart wears for the film’s climactic dance contest instantly became iconic, as did many of the movie’s shots and set pieces. Its soundtrack was an even bigger smash—the best-selling album of all time, in fact, until the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. How big and broad was Saturday Night Fever’s appeal? In 1978, the Children’s Television Workshop released Sesame Street Fever—a parody whose cover features Grover in John Travolta’s signature pose and Ernie, Bert, and The Cookie Monster standing in for the Bee Gees. Even that album went gold.But though Saturday Night Fever is remembered today as a feel-good disco movie, it’s actually a bracingly honest exploration of what it means to be young, broke, and filled with intense feelings that you cannot express and do not understand.The film that rocketed John Travolta to superstardom was based on a “nonfiction” New York magazine article by Nik Cohn called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” about the role disco played in the lives and dreams of working-class Italian kids. The story turned out to be completely made up by Cohn—but it nevertheless captured something poignant and powerful about the hopelessness and despair of that era in Brooklyn. Like so many masterpieces of the 1970s, Saturday Night Fever is a sexual assault–filled, profane character study about outsiders living sad, sordid lives on the fringes of society. But because it will forever be associated with John Travolta swaggering down the street to the insistent throb of The Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive,” we think of it differently than, say, Taxi Driver—even if Saturday Night Fever is only marginally less depressing. And if that Travis Bickle had known how to dance, it’d probably be a toss-up as to which is the bigger downer.True, the disco is the only place sexy paint-store employee Tony Manero (Travolta) can cast off the shackles of family and work and become his best, truest self: a dance-floor king, worshipped and lusted after by an army of admirers. But otherwise, the club is an overwhelmingly sad, grubby place where sexual predators in too-tight slacks prey on vulnerable women, drugs are consumed in unwise quantities, and the racism, sexism, and homophobia that characterized New York at the time was felt in countless ways.Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack brought disco to a bigger audience than ever before—but by that point, the scene had already taken a distinct turn for the seedy. The debauchery had become empty, and the vultures (like the disgusting dance-studio owner who brags to Tony about scoring with 65 percent of the women who enter his dance studio) had settled in. They wouldn’t leave until the bones were picked clean.Still, the disco serves as a paradise and a palace for Tony and his friends. While their leader isn’t as quick to toss around the N-word or gay-bash as his colleagues are, he’s not exactly preaching about tolerance either. That Tony Manero is sympathetic at all is a testament to the incongruous sweetness Travolta brings to the role. Even when he’s heaping abuse on the women who throw themselves at him, there’s something boyish and vulnerable underneath—a sense that Tony never outgrew being the little Italian boy who loved to dance. And sprinkled throughout Saturday Night Fever are moments of clarity when the boozy, sad fog of Tony’s existence dissipates, and he can see just how aimless and small and hopeless his life really is—how little his talent and hunger mean without connections.Saturday Night Fever’s commitment to upending audience expectations is realized most brilliantly in a devastating series of events that begins when Tony and his alternately adorably and irritatingly insecure partner win the big disco dance contest—solely because they’re white and have the home-field advantage. (The judges refuse to give the prize to more deserving Hispanic and black contestants.) Even Tony can see this, and is so disgusted that, in his sole act of nobility, he gives the award he and his partner just won to dancers he nevertheless calls “Spics.”It’s a perfect 1970s moment: a victory that’s actually a crushing defeat, one that sends a complicated and unsympathetic protagonist into an emotional tailspin. And astonishingly, things get even bleaker from there. Saturday Night Fever saves its greatest horrors for the very end, as the bogus win causes Tony to question every rotten thing in his life. Tony and his friends hit horrifying personal nadirs, from which one of them will never recover.Take away the lush, seductive music, the dancing and Travolta’s charisma and suddenly Saturday Night Fever becomes almost an updated, American version of grim Italian neorealism. Even with those sweetening, commercial elements, however, this look at the tribal rites of the new Saturday night still remains bracingly dark. For all of the pleasure and entertainment the dancing and soundtrack provided, Saturday Night Fever is, at its core, a stone-cold bummer—and that’s why it has endured far beyond the death of disco.

  5. Funny indeed, Ms. Roberts. I suppose that your site, and all of your very respectable and interesting ruminations by Mr. Grasso and Mr. McKenna, has helped to stimulate a dialogue, as I am currently attempting to write a memoir. Mr. Rabin’s article grazes the surface very nicely, however I feel that in over 40 years, I’ve read very few things that have illuminated the film in deeper ways that would personally satisfy me, and I thank all of you for having the interest to write what you have, either through praise or condemnation, which was obviously undertaken with a considerable amount of gusto and serious intent.
    In that spirit, and since I salute all of you with inspiring me to get down to the business of expressing my own thoughts
    about what I helped bring to fruition, I beg your indulgence to let me re-submit my thoughts about the film to all of you in a more clarified and revised manner, since the dialogue amongst yourselves inspired me to blurt out my response far too impulsively:

    “I have seen SNF described online these days by a younger generation as an enigma to be decoded, or an intellectual “mystery” to be solved, insofar that it managed to escape it’s own built-in irrelevancy and obsolescence, fated to be seen in the present as nothing more than an object of camp or a sociological reference point for the more embarrassing chapters of our pop-cultural past. But I would respectfully submit that there is no great critical riddle to be solved. It’s lasted for the reasons that all true great works of art last; it is a prism though which an audience achieved a profound emotional and spiritual catharsis through a fictional critique of “false life”, where a lie has told the truth about the falsity of a social contract that is perceived as meaningful, but is an illusion. It is a film that presents a business, the disco, as an officially designated and glamourized portal of “escape” in which human beings are allowed the masks and disguises of a strictly conditional social integration, and how those carefully constructed masks and identities desperately falter when the true inchoate feelings of an artificial freedom slowly crack through the façade. In the simplest terms, it sweeps the institutions of leisure time, organized religion, family, education, class, fashion, gender roles, if not the entire capitalistic spectacle of “free Western democracy” into the collectively recognized nightmare of a totalitarian state, an invisibly controlling hand that can and will divide the individual self against itself with it’s own permission (“There are ways of killing yourself without killing yourself”). This was the essential thematic conceit that was transmuted into the hearts and minds of it’s audience through the power of it’s actors, highlighting the main character’s awakening to this “false life” within the terrifying mirror of his most vulnerable supplicant’s commensurate self-destruction. It was this core, this howl of existential despair, that sold countless Bee Gees songs, consciously or unconsciously, an acute and titanic phenomena that would never occur again, for all the previously stated reasons. It is, however, a true mystery as to why the actual underpinnings of that monumental phenomena is so continuously and willfully ignored.

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