Wednesday 14 September 2016

Movie Review: Saturday Night Fever (1977)

The story of a young man who rules the disco floor but otherwise has little of meaning going on in his life, Saturday Night Fever is a majestic dance drama.

In Brooklyn, 19 year old Tony Manero (John Travolta) works at a paint store and still lives with his bickering parents. But on Friday and Saturday nights, Tony is the king of the local 2001 Odyssey dance club. Tony runs with a group of friends, including Joey, Double J and the naive Bobby C. Local girl Annette (Donna Pescow) desperately wants Tony to be her man and dance partner for an upcoming competition. Tony initially agrees and they start practicing, but he resists her sexual advances. As soon as he spots newcomer Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) on the club dance floor, Tony becomes obsessed with her and eventually they team up as dance partners.

Stephanie is working at a talent agency across the river in Manhattan and looks down on Tony's unambitious Brooklyn life, only gradually warming up to him. Meanwhile there is trouble on the home front when Tony's brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) unexpectedly quits the priesthood. There is also turmoil within Tony's group of friends, with Bobby C. getting his girlfriend pregnant, and the guys skirmishing with a rival group of neighbourhood kids. With the dance competition drawing near, Tony's life reaches a crossroads, with all his relationships at a crisis point.

Directed by John Badham, Saturday Night Fever is a seminal film, transforming Travolta into an overnight sensation and exquisitely capturing the disco culture just as it exploded into the mainstream. Mixing irresistible dance scenes at the 2001 Odyssey Club with a story of lost youth, bleak prospects and general disenchantment, the film delivers street level grime punctuated by the alternative world of dance enlivened by vivid lights, and the juxtaposition works brilliantly.

The film's seductive music features songs by the Bee Gees and others, and is one of the all-time most famous and successful movie soundtracks. Stayin' Alive, Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love, and More Than A Woman, all by the Bee Gees, plus If I Can't Have You by Yvonne Elliman became international hits and remain indelibly linked with the disco era.

Several of the film's scenes are the stuff of legend, firmly entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist. Tony's walk down the sidewalk carrying a can of paint opens the film and sets the stage, Badham frequently focusing on his classy shoes and slinky legs to show a natural dancer's grace in movement. The first time that Tony and his friends, known as "the faces", enter the club, the crowd parts to salute the local heroes, Tony suddenly in his element and his palace, all the petty troubles of the real world forgotten.

And when he takes to the dance floor Tony demonstrates why he dominates. Travolta's dancing, captured with slinky finesse by Badham's cameras, is all about sexy agility and an abundance of confidence, his tall, sinewy physique transforming the dance floor into his arena, where others are welcome but only at his pleasure. There is a magical dimension to the scenes on the dance floor, the combination of Travolta, the music and the lighting achieving intoxicating heights of enchantment.

The dramatic scenes are equally effective, with Tony's domestic world a nightmare of endless arguments within a dysfunctional working class Italian-American family. The dangerous high jinks on the cables of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge are also memorable, with the first round registering the exuberance of indestructible youth, and the second visit revealing how low the psyche can sink when the real world closes in.

Travolta at 23 years old owns the film, radiating star charisma and finding Tony's angst at entering early adulthood with an undefined future. He receives able support from Donna Pescow and Karen Lynn Gorney as Annette and Stephanie. Prescow nails the hopeless girl who will do anything to grab the attention of the local legend, including devaluing herself into abject humiliation. Gorney makes a huge impression as the girl desperate to prove that she can do better than what life in Brooklyn has to offer, and even more desperate to tell all of Brooklyn about her exploits in Manhattan, real or not.

Hypnotic, authentic and infectious, Saturday Night Fever is scorching hot.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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