Say Anything: Saturday Night Fever
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 16, 2010
Mostly as a result of it just being on TV a lot the last month or so, I’ve become obsessed recently with Saturday Night Fever. I always liked the movie and was always fairly fascinated by it–mainly due to the general disconnect between the movie’s remembered public perception (Grease set in the disco era) and the movie’s actual content (Mean Streets with a couple of scenes set in a disco). But since I’ve watched it a couple more times, I’ve come to appreciate it even further, both as a cool and somewhat bizarre moment in cultural history, and as an edgy, surprisingly dark, and just really fucking good movie. Some of the reasons for my recent infatuation:
1. First and foremost, has there ever been a better piece of popular entertainment inspired by a case of fraudulent journalism? Saturday Night Fever was based on a New York Magazine article by rock journalist Nik Cohn called “Tribal Rites of the Saturday Night,” a fantastic essay about a Bay Ridge-born, blue-collar kid named Vincent who worked in a paint store by day and owned the dance floor by night. The article became a huge hit, and much of the movie, from anecdotal stuff like the fangirl kissing Travolta and thinking she just kissed Al Pacino, to much of the subplot with Annette, ended up being taken directly from it.
Only one problem: It was all completely fabricated, a story that, as he admitted in the mid-90s, the British Cohn had made up based on his own experiences in Mod culture after being assigned to cover a culture he knew nothing about. Not that I hold it against the movie by any means–if anything, it gives me a deeper respect for it. As a recovering ex-journalism major, I hold a not-so-secret belief that journalistic efforts would almost always be better served as straight fiction. A case like Saturday Night Fever–which, though completely fake, still ended up defining the disco era more memorably and defintiively than any legitimate document–just feeds my worst professional schadenfraude.
2. Second and probably actually foremost–Beatles aside, has there ever been a more dominant stretch for a pop artist than what the Bee Gees (and more specifically, Barry Gibb) ac
complished in the two year period (’76-’78) around the release of this movie? The Bee Gees put up Barry Bonds-sized numbers here, with three #1 singles performed specifically for the soundtrack (“Night Fever,” “Staying Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love”), another one that had already been released prior to the movie (“You Should Be Dancing”), another one from the movie that Gibb gave away to another artist (Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Cant Have You”), and another song that very easily could have gone to #1 had they ever released it as a single (“More Than a Woman”). These aren’t just fluke or reputation-based chart-toppers, either, these were stone classics, and the disco genre’s very bread and butter. “Staying Alive” is probably the most enduring, but “You Should Be Dancing” is the real floor-scorcher, and “If I Can’t Have You” is one of the most heartbreaking love songs in top 40 history. Oh yeah, and Samantha Sang’s “Emotion,” a similarly devestating Gibb-written #3 hit was recorded for the movie, but ended up not being used. It’s an absolutely mind-boggling stretch. Hell, it makes Lil’ Wayne and Timbaland look like slackers by comparison.
Oh, and by the way, though Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” is the classical-goes-disco number from the movie that crossed over and that everyone remembers, for my money, the real classic is David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain.” Just ask Justice, they understand.
3. The dance scenes in this movie are, of course, absolutely spellbinding. Before I saw it for the first time, I figured that they would seem fairly underwhelming by modern-day standards, but like Vince Carter at the ’00 Slam Dunk Contest, most of the club scenes–particularly, the “You Should Be Dancing” scene pictured above where Travolta “takes over”–still contiue to impress. That said, I wonder how much of it is due to the actual dancing, and how much of it is due to the quality of the music (even the non-Gibb-related songs are all top-of-the-line stuff) and that goddamn Odyssey 2001 dancefloor. I’ve never been a clubber by any means, and for all I know this was a total Hollywood set creation, but I feel like if all dance floors looked like that, glowing and pulsating and whatnot–well, let’s just say I’d be a much easier sell. Then again, the video for U2’s “Discotheque” was a formative experience for me as a kid, so I might just have a deeply-entrenched predilection for super-over-the-top disco lighting in all its forms.
4. One of the most remarkable things about this movie has to be the fact that despite cementing John Travolta as a film mega-star, it made careers out of absolutely none of the other actors. I mean, I’m not saying that the kid who plays Bobby should have gone on to be a matinee idol or anything, but when you watch this movie, there’s not one notable non-Travolta character that you see and go “Oh yeah, that’s the [chick/dude] from [movie/TV show]! I thought I recognized [them]!” I guess Fran Drescher appears in one scene (could’ve fooled me) and a couple actors ended up appearing in a Sopranos episode or two (just a matter of odds with the number of Italian actors involved), but really, the second-most famous person in this movie is probably Donna Pescow, the woman who played Annette, who went on to appear in a bunch of daytime soaps. And frankly, it’s sort of hard to say who among these guys should have gone on to any modicum of success. For such a great movie, it’s generally lacking in breakout characters–the best you can say about most of these actors is that they do a very good job of playing believably-annoying-occasionally-bordering-on-despicable-type people. Not many classic movies you can say that about.
5. Speaking of Annette–what more thankless role has there been for a young actress in the last 40 years of film? On this blog, I like to occasionally give out an unofficial Good Sportsmanship award to actresses with roles in male-dominated movies or TV shows, where the character serves little purpose except to be the constant recipient of abuse and/or humiliation, and has no choice but to put on a brave face and take it like a champ. (Past winners include: Amy Smart in Crank, Elisha Cuthbert in the second season of 24). After watching this movie a couple of times, I’m thinking the award might have to be named after Annette. Just a chubby, somewhat dim-witted girl desperately seeking some sort of affection from Tony, she is instead subjected to nothing but misery from him and his friends throughout the movie. He selects her as his dance partner, then insults her and eventually ditches her for Stephanie. He refuses to have sex with her, stringing her along until she practically blackmails him into doing so, refuses again when she admits to not having protection, and then cruelly spurns her when she later approaches him with a handful of condoms. He tricks her into thinking he’s jumped off the Verrazano Bridge, and taunts her when she realizes the subterfuge. Lastly, he sits idly by as she’s callously used as a spare vagina by Joey and Double J, and when it’s all over, solaces her with a heartfelt “Are you proud of yourself, Annette?…Now you’re a cunt.”
Most amazing to me, which I didn’t even remember from the first couple times I’d seen it, is what happens to Annette at the end. The gang heads out to the Verrazano-Narrows for the second time, with Joey and Double J taking their turns with Annette on the way there, and once there, Tony insults Annette and she runs out of the car sobbing. He runs out after her, but is soon distracted by Bobby’s suicidal dance on top of one of the bridge’s beams. When Bobby falls to his death, Annette shrieks and begins sobbing even more violently, and Joey wraps her up in his arms to comfort her. When the cops come to talk to them about Bobby’s plummet, Joey still has his arm around Annette, and the implication appears to be that she’s officially his girl now. Really? The guy who got her drunk and high, announced to the world that she was going to “give everyone a piece,” emotionlessly took his turn and then passed her off to Double J, the movie’s personification of pure evil? This is Annette’s happy ending? Well, congrats, Donna Pescow–your name will officially be on the Good Sportsmanship Award trophy for all time.
6. Best White Castle scene ever–and yes, I’m remembering about that other movie. If anyone can find a clip online, let me know.