Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews, Musicals

Review: Saturday Night Fever

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

In intent and intensity, Saturday Night Fever falls somewhere between West Side Story and Mean Streets. The former film is specifically evoked by the dwelling on Romeo and Juliet. When disco king Tony Manero takes his prospective dance-contest partner Stephanie Mangano out to tea, she plays a humiliation game with him, saying that though their origins are the same, she is now of a different kind, and implying that she is too good for him. The lovers aren’t exactly star-crossed, but they have their share of differences to overcome; and contrary to what Stephanie would like to believe, the inadequacies aren’t all on Tony’s side. After all, wondering why Romeo was so quick to take the poison is a valid response to Romeo and Juliet—much more so than her tossed-off response that “That’s the way they did it in those days.”

The conversation—and a couple others between Tony and Stephanie during the film—reminds me of conversations between Henry Steele and his tutor Janet in One on One: in each case, the dumb guy attains dignity in his lack of presumption, while the bright girl’s phoniness is deflated. Both Tony Manero and Henry Steele are naïve but proud young men who feel no obligation to defend or apologize for what is most important to them—for Henry, basketball; for Tony, dancing. In the inherent rhythm of director John Badham’s episodic plot development and vibrant montage, as well as the BeeGees’ atmospheric disco tunes, the impulse of the dance is continually felt, creating in Saturday Night Fever a sense of the real importance of dance that was never conveyed in The Turning Point. In fact, dance is so central to the meaning of Saturday Night Fever that it is best compared to a film like The Band Wagon. Tony and Stephanie, like Fred Astaire’s Tony Hunter and Cyd Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard, are two people who can communicate with each other in the universal language of dance when everything else fails (which it does).

A reverse metaphor is at the center of both films. Instead of dancing representing or expressing the experiences of life, the dance becomes the basis upon which such experiences are established. “You make it with some of these girls,” says Tony (Manero, not Hunter), “and the next thing you know they expect you to dance with ’em.” He is jealous when Stephanie dances with someone else, and flies into a rage if anyone dares say something like “It’s just dancing.” The expressiveness and economy of the dance are reproduced in the metaphoric shorthand with which Badham establishes his terms in the first reel of the film: the rhythmic montage, the sidewalk-level reverse-track of Tony’s walking feet, the low-angle shots of his matadorish ritual of dressing for the disco. Once these terms are established, the film can go anywhere it wants to. Problematically, it tries to go everywhere at once; and if Tony’s sudden awakening to the absurdity of his existence has a false ring, it’s because if anything is less likely than all those things happening to one teenager, it’s all of them coming to a head on the same night. Nevertheless, despite some of its subject matter, Saturday Night Fever is ultimately not a weighty film; and however that might cross the intentions of writer and director, the film is the better for it. No matter that a few grim things happen beneath the cathedral-like arches of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge: that bridge remains a happy symbol of Tony’s crossing from one way of life to another, and what we remember is not the stumbling but the dancing.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: John Badham. Screenplay: Norman Wexler, after a story by Nik Cohn. Cinematography: Ralf D. Bode. Production design: Charles Bailey. Editing: David Rawlins. Music: Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb; additional music: David Shire. Production: Robert Stigwood.
The players: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow, Bruce Ornstein.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.