Wednesday, September 18, 2013


With the arrival of Saturday Night Fever (1977) to Netflix Instant, I thought I'd reach back to an article I wrote a few years ago for's 1970's-themed issue, "Dancing Ourselves Into the Tomb." It's more of a personal take on the film's soundtrack than an outright movie review, but my thoughts on the film do come across, so consider this a slight change of pace.

Can't Fight the Fever

(Published December 5, 2011, in slightly different form)

When the movie Saturday Night Fever was released in December of 1977, it became a smash critical and popular success that delivered disco to the masses, John Travolta to movie theaters, and a record that became the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time.

But in my household, the film’s influence was exactly...nil. Considering my family’s strict rock & roll diet and my impressionable age, I didn’t have to be told that a movie about disco was cinema non grata. (Say it with me now: “Disco sucks!") But beyond hewing to the party line, as a family we agreed those high-pitched, nasal Bee Gee voices had become annoyingly ubiquitous in the months following the film's release.

The Bee Gees and their chests
And those voices—along with the other Fever songs cramming the airwaves—were everywhere. I don't remember how many times that thumping bass and Gibb-brother whine would suddenly infect the car radio, causing one or the other Woodstock-era parent to reach violently for the tuner with a stream of R-rated invective. I knew the rules: if it had a dance beat, it was shunned—as clear as the laws of physics.

For the next half decade, my views on disco—and by extension, Saturday Night Fever—remained unchanged, even after the country's disco rage had subsided. When the movie showed up on cable in both PG and R-rated versions, I peeked in at a few key scenes to compare the levels of nudity and swearing (the '80s equivalent of watching deleted scenes), but even the charms of Donna Pescow and Karen Lynn Gorney couldn't overcome my lingering aversion to the film as a whole.

Travolta struts
Jump forward to college, where a free, on-campus screening has been scheduled. Now officially a film student, I decide it might be of academic interest to see what all the fuss was about. I was a little embarrassed to be going and, rebel that I was, wondered which swear words my parents would've used to discourage me.

But once I sat down to absorb that still-young relic of pop culture past, I was immediately struck by how friggin' cool the opening shots of Tony Manero's strutting legs were—purely from a cinematic standpoint, of course—and how...appropriate...the music was to the character and setting, and (okay, I'll admit it) how good the movie actually was. Contrary to what I'd believed, Saturday Night Fever wasn't a frivolous paean to the coolness of disco—all surface, strutting, and flashy numbers. It was in truth a well-realized and affecting drama about a guy outgrowing his working-class Brooklyn roots and needing to step out (literally) into a more forward-looking world. By movie's end, disco, white suits, and being cool are what Tony rejects. That life, he determines, is a dead end.

I was shocked. I was also amused. How could all those people slavishly embracing the movie's style and music in 1978 have missed that they were jumping onto a bandwagon the movie clearly thought was for losers? I was so glad I hadn't joined that hayride (thanks, Mom and Dad). And since I now knew that the message of the One Great Disco Film was "Disco Sucks," I could be as big a fan as I wanted!

And so I was: telling anyone who would listen how great it was and how wrong I'd been, my genuine feelings of repentance now offset by a sense of retroactive vindication. Not that anyone really cared (it was the early 1980s, after all, and the terrible sequel Staying Alive had yet to be released), but I remained smugly triumphant—especially since I still disliked the music.

More years passed, marked by new wave, glam rock, synth pop, hip-hop, grunge, and any number of musical genres and styles, many of which were defined by the dance beats and rhythms first introduced by disco. As I went from perfecting my moonwalk in the privacy of my bedroom to dancing badly in clubs from Philadelphia to New York to Europe, the thumping bass and simple grooves I'd shunned when they were called "disco" now became the building blocks of any club track worth dancing to.

Things came full circle in 2010 at a friend's 1970s-themed wedding reception. It was there that, upon hearing "Stayin' Alive" thump across the dining hall, I heard myself join the crowd in (could it be?) a welcoming cheer. Without hesitation. Without irony. To my chagrin, those whiny, nasal voices and strutting beat, once such an affront to me and my loved ones, now evoked the comfortable familiarity of an old friend. Was it simply nostalgia, a yearning for the days when life was divided into disco lovers and disco haters? Was it an evolution in my musical tastes? A new openness to things I'd once unthinkingly hated? Or was it just the wine I'd been guzzling?

But it wasn't the wine. I've since listened—and grooved—to a number of other Fever tracks: "Night Fever," "More Than A Woman," "How Deep Is Your Love," even "If I Can't Have You." And despite all my rock-reared instincts and decades-long dogma, the truth has become unavoidable: those songs are damn good. They're smooth, well-produced, and classical in their pop perfection. Compared to today's harder, brasher dance tracks, they practically qualify as (gulp) easy listening.

Sure, they're strongly evocative of their time and place—and make me want to film my feet while strutting down a Brooklyn sidewalk—but I don't think it's just nostalgia. Could it be that, maybe—just maybe—disco doesn't suck after all?

Somewhere across the country, two Boomer-era parents are cursing me out.


Anonymous said...

1977. December. A low-budget Hollywood film is set in a disco. It states simply and clearly: That which is essential is invisible to the eye. It says that American society is a masquerade, filled with cruelty, isolation, ignorance, and death.
It says that Christianity is filled with everything but the spiritual. It says that the superficial is raised to the highest value, and that the truly meaningful can find no place in the capitalist grid of diversion, distraction, and well-managed escapism. A young man dies trying to pretend that this not true, that he is
acknowledged, that he is recognized, that he is a human being in pain,, that he is considered, when none of this is true. He is the film's sacrificial victim to the lie of the Great Modern State

It sells billions of records and tickets around the globe, and is percieved as either "fun" or "trivial".
It took over forty years for it earn it's rightful place as one of the most important works of art of the twentieth century.

That's why you're dancing.

Anonymous said...

"A young man dies trying to pretend that this is not true, that he is acknowledged and recognized as a
human being in pain, that he is considered, when none of it is true. He is the film's sacrificial victim to
the lie of The Great Modern State"

Bobby C.