SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is one of those movies you would probably enjoy if you let yourself. Leave home your preconceived notions about what a movie about disco dancing, set in Brooklyn, starring John Travolta of Sweathog fame is going to be like--you should find the movie a pleasant surprise.
Travolta plays Tony Manero, king of the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn disco scene. From the opening shot, a sweeping glance of Bay Ridge streets complete with pizzerias, neighborhood stores and the F train rumbling overhead, we know Tony is in control of his environment. In the background float the strains of "Staying Alive" by the Bee Gees, who wrote and performed the movie's score. Tony works in a paint store, a job that proves singularly unpromising. But he really lives for Saturday night, when he and his friends hit the 2001: Odyssey discotheque.
The scene in the disco tells the audience why. During the week, Tony is a nobody in a dull job with an unrewarding family life. Yet once he enters the 2001 he becomes an object of respect, of admiration, of attention. As he and his friends walk in, the crowd parts. People's heads begin turning, just like a "My broker is E.F. Hutton..." commercial set to music. Beautiful women come to Tony's table to ask him to dance, or to be allowed to wipe off his sweaty forehead. And Manero can really dance.
The disco scenes are an effective mixture of sound, light and movement that catches the intensity and power of the fever that brings these people out to dance. The dance floor is a vibrant pattern of red, blue and yellow flashing lights, punctuated by the incessant disco beat from the record booth. The dancers, especially Tony, are graceful, swirling pairs that make you wish you had learned how to hustle back in high school. Lean back and enjoy the dance scenes for their own sake. They form the backbone of the movie, so you will see a lot of them.
Yet if the movie were only the dancing, interspersed with a few shots of Tony Manero at work or at home, it would fail miserably. Luckily, the film goes much deeper than that. The central dynamic in the film is the increasing tension between Tony and his Bay Ridge world. Tony is growing up, moving apart from this Italian ghetto. And that growth is immeasurably accelerated by Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), another Bay Ridge dancer whom Tony meets at the 2001 and with whom he inevitably falls in love. Stephanie looks down on Tony and his neighborhood because she works in a Manhattan record agency, where everything is beautiful: "The people are beautiful, the offices are beautiful, lunch hours are beautiful, everyone shops at Bonwit Teller," she maintains. The first time Tony and Stephanie talk over coffee is a funny scene, with Stephanie obnoxiously dropping names of the movie and rock stars she's lunched with, and Tony gamely trying to hang on in the conversation:
Why, the other day Laurence Olivier walked into the office. You know, he's a great actor, he does Polaroid commercials?
Who? Oh yeah, right. You think he could get me a camera?"
I didn't ask him for no camera.
'Cause you already got one, you sly fox, right?
Travolta is funny throughout the movie, in the tough yet naive way he has perfected in his role as Vinnie Barbarino on T.V.'s "Welcome Back, Kotter." He turns in a creditable performance, even if his range of emotions is somewhat limited. As for Gorney--well, she is best when dancing and not saying much, so she never rises above her phony pretensions or her background, as Tony finally does. The rest of the cast is routine, but for the most part they play their parts adequately.
The psychological explanation of Tony's need to dance and his subsequent escape from his work-dance-work life is handled superficially. When Tony gets a raise, for instance, his father belittles it because it's only $4 a week, and "four dollars don't even buy three dollars no more." Tony snaps back, "Go ahead, piss on it, piss on my raise. Only twice in my life did anyone ever tell me I was good--this raise and dancing. You never did, asshole."
All the praise in the family is reserved for Tony's brother Frank Jr., a priest. When Frank shows up at home one day with the news that he is leaving the priesthood, the family is despondent--except for Tony. As he explains to his brother, "I always felt like I was the shit of the family, but maybe if you're not so perfect I ain't so shit, huh?"
The family scenes, especially those with Tony and Frank, add little to the movie. They simply set out a few explanatory details of Tony's life, without putting them together. They may show us the soil from which Tony springs, but they could have been done much more creatively or convincingly.
Fortunately, the development of Tony's character is handled better, but it still leaves something to be desired. Though at first Tony seems to be just another Bay Ridge stiff--"nowhere, on his way to no place," as Stephanie puts it--the audience soon realizes he is different, more aware of his motives and desires. The high he gets from dancing is transitory. He wants that same feeling to come from other parts of his life, which is empty but for the disco dancing. He comes to view his life as unsatisfying and unhealthy, especially when several events occur to help him see his life more clearly.
AFTER a friend is beaten up and sent to the hospital, Tony and his group retaliate by attacking a Puerto Rican gang, only to find out the friend isn't sure it was the Puerto Ricans who mugged him. When Tony and Stephanie win first prize in the 2001 dance contest, a goal they have aimed at for a long time, Tony decides he cannot accept it because a Puerto Rican couple really deserved to win.
The film's ending is too abrupt, however, and fails to bring Tony's development to a realistic conclusion. It is all too clear that after two hours, director John Badham had decided he should bring the movie to a close. So after a particularly wild night at the disco, Tony and some friends are driving over the Verrazano bridge, a favorite latenight haunt. Stephanie has just dumped Tony, telling him she never really loved him, that she was only trying out "her act" on him. Bobby, the youngest of Tony's gang, is despondent because his girlfriend is pregnant. Everyone is very drunk, and Bobby starts walking up on the bridge's restraining rail. In a scene that shoots for terrifying and disturbing, but only winds up depressing and irritating, Bobby falls off the bridge and drowns. Tony walks all night and the next morning shows up at Stephanie's, ready to move into Manhattan, get a job and give up dancing.
This bridge ex machina is unsatisfying, and the audience leaves with the feeling that maybe Tony's life won't turn out as rosily as the film suggests. The movie is simply not as tightly crafted as it should be, and the on-again, off-again directing and acting detracts greatly from its effect. Still, Travolta is surprisingly good, the photography is often interesting, and the dancing and music are excellent. If you think you've got the fever, head out and see it.