Saturday Night Fever is more than just the movie with John Travolta wearing a white suit and dancing to the music of the Bee Gees. It’s also an insightful study of ambition and desperation, and a gritty depiction of life in the working-class neighborhoods of New York City. So while the storyline is melodramatic and some of the musical sequences go on too long, Travolta’s performance is one of the most iconic acting turns of the ’70s, and the movie is filled with moments that have become ingrained into the texture of cinema history. Norman Wexler adapted the script from a New York magazine article titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which, ironically, author Nik Cohn later admitted he fabricated, so it’s not as if Saturday Night Fever has any claim to factual accuracy; what the movie offers instead is a palpable sense that its relatable characters are obsessed with scoring on the dancefloor as a means of escaping what they perceive as the suffocating confines of “normal” life.
Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a twentysomething paint-store drone whose life is headed straight to blue-collar mediocrity except for when he unleashes his prodigious talent for disco dancing. On the multicolored floor of the Odyssey nightclub, he’s a god. Tony’s abilities draw him into a fractious relationship with an ambitious female counterpart, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), and he’s fascinated by the fact that she’s even better at putting on big-city airs than he is, so he studies with her to improve his dance technique, to polish his faux refinement, and to make time with her in order to prove his Neanderthal manhood. Watching dim-bulb Tony realize that there’s more to life than pretending to be a big shot is compelling, and the subplot depicting Tony’s abusive treatment of a simple neighborhood girl (Donna Pescow) adds dark colors to the characterization. The sequences depicting Tony and his buddies prowling for women are especially vivid, with the streetwise dudes spewing foul-mouthed boasts and indulging impulses so primal that they’re forever walking the line between big talk and big, violent action.
Travolta gives his career-best performance, matching youthful swagger with genuine pathos, and he’s credible even when the movie gets overwrought. However it’s the dance scenes that make the film legendary, and for the most part they don’t disappoint; director John Badham’s exciting visual contributions include the up-and-down camera moves that follow Travolta’s every gyration during his show-stopping routine set to “You Should Be Dancing.” For the whole Saturday Night Fever experience, by the way, avoid the truncated PG-rated version that Paramount released in 1978 so younger viewers could see the movie, because only the R-rated original has the full impact.
Saturday Night Fever: RIGHT ON