Saturday Night Fever
Saturday Night Fever is a 1977 film starring John Travolta as Tony Manero, an immature young man whose weekends are spent visiting a local Brooklyn discothèque; Karen Lynn Gorney is his dance partner and eventual girlfriend. While in the disco, Tony is the king. His care-free youth and weekend dancing help him to temporarily forget the reality of his life: a dead-end job, clashes with his unsupportive and squabbling parents, racial tensions in the local community, and his associations with a gang of macho friends.
A huge commercial success, Saturday Night Fever significantly helped to popularize disco music around the world and made Travolta, already well known from his role on TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter, a household name. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, featuring disco songs by the Bee Gees, is the best selling soundtrack of all time. The film is the first example of cross-media marketing, with the tie-in soundtrack’s single being used to help promote the film before its release and the film popularizing the entire soundtrack after its release. Saturday Night Fever also showcased aspects of the music, the dancing, and the subculture surrounding the disco era: symphony-orchestrated melodies, haute-couture styles of clothing, pre AIDS sexual promiscuity, and graceful choreography.
Saturday Night Fever is based upon a 1976 New York magazine article by British writer Nik Cohn, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” In the late-1990s, Cohn acknowledged that the article had been fabricated. A newcomer to the United States and a stranger to the disco lifestyle, Cohn was unable to make any sense of the subculture he had been assigned to write about. The characters who became Tony Manero and his friends were based on Mods, an English youth movement that also placed great importance on music, clothes and dancing.
Saturday Night Fever Plot
The movie is a coming-of-age tale contemporaneously set in 1977 about 19-year-old Tony Manero (John Travolta), a skirt-chasing Italian American from (and possessing the heavy accent of) the New York City community of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. Tony lives at home with his bickering and demeaning parents, and works at a dead-end job in a small hardware store. He lives paycheck to paycheck and often finds himself short on the weekends. But he rules the dance floor on Saturday nights with his frequent appearances at 2001 Odyssey, a local disco.
In the opening scene, Manero is seen strutting down 86th Street as “Stayin’ Alive” plays and stopping for a bite at Lenny’s Pizzeria. Tony has three close friends: Joey (Joseph Cali); Double J (Paul Pape); and the diminutive Bobby C. (Barry Miller), the only one of them who is still in high school. Bobby C. is part of the group because he is the only one with a car (a run-down 1964 Chevrolet Impala). An informal member of their group is Annette (Donna Pescow), a neighborhood girl who has been Tony’s partner in previous dance competitions and longs for a more permanent and physical relationship with him. They officially dated once, but Tony was unsatisfied by the date because Annette spoke only of her three married sisters.
Knowing Annette has the right moves to win an upcoming dance contest, Tony agrees to be her partner when she recruits him for the competition, much to Annette’s delight. Her happiness is short-lived, however, when Tony dumps Annette after seeing Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) dance at the disco and later at a neighborhood dance studio. Stephanie is a tall, attractive, talented dancer and Tony believes she can help him win the competition. Despite an initially frosty and undeservedly superior attitude toward Tony, and after much urging, Stephanie agrees to partner with him in the competition, but not otherwise.
Stephanie works as a secretary for a magazine publisher in Manhattan and is poised to move there, where she has more opportunities to work her way up. She even talks about meeting celebrities like Joe Namath and David Bowie at the offices of the magazine she works for. These discussions awaken Tony’s desire to transcend his Bay Ridge, Brooklyn working-class roots, but do not overcome his reluctance to change. However, Stephanie ultimately reveals her own vulnerabilities to Tony., and that leaves its mark.
The release Tony obtains from his workaday existence through his weekend clubbing is examined through the prism of Tony’s sometimes pathetic day-to-day existence, including his utterly failed relationship with his bickering parents and his lapsed relationship with Father Frank Jr., Tony’s much older brother who became a Catholic priest and is clearly his parents’ favorite for having been successful. Tony’s mother dotes on Frank Jr., yet the particular moment of the story becomes transformative when Frank Jr. shatters his parents’ dreams of what he refers to as “pious glory” by abandoning the priesthood. This may be partly because Frank Jr. no longer wishes to spend his life in celibacy, but mainly, as he obliquely explains to Tony, because he has doubts about his faith and is disillusioned with the Church. And so this film too focuses on transition at several levels.
The confidence Tony exudes because of dance also allows him to hide his demons from his friends and to be an authority figure to them. Bobby C., who looks up to Tony, asks him for advice for getting out of his relationship with his devoutly Catholic girlfriend, Pauline, who is pregnant with his child. Though Tony tells him to dump her, Bobby C. faces pressure from his family and others to marry her, which he clearly does not wish to do. After she refuses to get an abortion, Bobby asks Frank Jr. if Pope Paul VI would grant him dispensation for an abortion. Bobby’s feelings of despair deepen when Frank tells him dispensation would be highly unlikely.
Double-J and Joey are Tony’s more like-minded friends: macho, foul-mouthed, bigoted, chauvinistic, and with hair-trigger tempers. They engage in wild behavior including balancing themselves along the dangerous railing of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge while in varying states of drunkenness. When another member of their clique is beaten up and put in a hospital, apparently by some Puerto Rican youths, Tony, Double-J, and Joey vow revenge and brawl with the Puerto Ricans in a bar frequented by the rival Barracuda gang, only finding out later that they may have targeted the wrong people.
On the evening of the dance competition at 2001 Odyssey, Tony and Stephanie complete their dance, and are wildly applauded. The last competitors, however, are a dazzling Puerto Rican couple. After seeing their spectacular performance, Tony knows that he and Stephanie have been outclassed. Nonetheless, Tony and Stephanie take the top prize, which Tony immediately dismisses (realizing they don’t deserve it), claiming the contest was rigged in his favor because of his popularity at 2001. He grabs the trophy and prize money from Stephanie and presents them to the Puerto Rican couple (who took runner-up) instead, telling them they deserve it.
The apparent fix of the result seems to end Tony’s concerted ability to hide his rage at his situation. Tony begins his rant by accusing his friends of being phonies who will not be honest with him. Dragging Stephanie with him, he makes a crude attempt to force himself on her in the car, an effort that ends when she fights him off and escapes. He then sullenly takes off with the gang, along with a drunk and high Annette, who Joey says is going to “give everybody a piece,” evidently as retribution for Tony’s refusal to be with her. Double-J and Joey both take turns with Annette, but Annette starts to cry and to struggle as she comes down from the drugs she had been given and comes to realize she did not want to have sex with them.
They pull the car off onto the shoulder at the Verranzano Narrows Bridge once more, but this time, Bobby C., who normally stays in the car, joins them, and is attempting more dangerous stunts than Tony, Double-J, and Joey had tried on the supporting structure of the bridge. Realizing that Bobby is recklessly acting out, Tony tries to coax him off the railing. But upset at his lonely life, his situation with Pauline, and a broken promise from Tony earlier that he would call him, the needy Bobby issues a tirade at Tony’s lack of care before slipping and falling to his death in the Narrows more than one hundred feet below. The friends are shocked and grief-stricken. When a detective investigating the incident asks Tony if he thinks Bobby C. committed suicide, Tony responds obliquely, “There are ways of killin’ yourself without killin’ yourself.”
After leaving his friends behind, a distraught Tony spends the rest of the night riding the subway. He finally shows up at Stephanie’s apartment in Manhattan, apologizing for his bad behavior. He tells her that he plans on leaving Brooklyn and coming to Manhattan to escape from his family and friends, and what he considers to be a fake life. He also tells her that he wants to try to salvage their relationship by being friends first and see what develops from there. Recognizing Tony’s honest wish to change, Stephanie takes his hand in hers, and then him into her arms in the final, struck-pose scene.
As with many coming-of-age tales, the crux of the story lies in the specific choices that are presented and made, but the eventuality and the nature of those critical choices are plainly foreshadowed by various plot devices.
Early on, as Tony and Stephanie feel each other out for partnering in the dance contest, their coffee-shop discussion turns to Stephanie’s opportunity to see the 1968 Zefferelli film “Romeo and Juliet.” This serves as a clue to the upcoming brawl between the Italian-American boys and the Puerto Ricans, an event that parallels the story line of the musical “West Side Story,” a tale acknowledged by its authors to have been derived from “Romeo and Juliet” that substituted Italians and Puerto Ricans for Montagues and Capulets. The reference also foreshadows the eventual escape of the main characters from their unhappy lot: Romeo and Juliet (and their West Side counterparts, Tony and Maria), by means of death; Stephanie and Tony by means of U-Haul to Manhattan.
Later on, as Annette continues to push for Tony’s physical affections, he is forced to confront her about her choices.
Tony: “Are you a nice girl or are you a cunt?” Annette: “Can’t I be both?” Tony: “No. It’s a decision a girl’s gotta make early in life, if she’s gonna be a nice girl or a cunt.”
But these self-same choices will come to Tony too, and soon. He must ultimately decide if he is to continue as a nasty, predatory, womanizer with no real future, or if he will settle into a more responsible, respectable, loving and fully realized creature, and thus be all grown up.
His choice seems to have been reached after that fateful subway ride.
Even so, Tony’s apparent election to live a life of conformity and obscurity and presumably mediocrity filled with middle class values presents a depressing, ambiguous finish. Eventually viewers were invited back in to Tony’s life in the 1983 sequel Staying Alive.