SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

Poffy The Cucumber

SaturdayNightFever_CAP

When hip dysplasia goes untreated.

A Sweathog Comes of Age.

I said a-bar bar bar – bar Barbarino
A-bar bar bar – bar Barbarino
A-bar bar bar – bar Barbarino
You got me rockin’ and a-reelin’ got me rockin’ and a-reelin’ Barbar-i-no!…
— Vinny Barbarino, WELCOME BACK KOTTER, 1975

Ever wondered what Vinnie Barbarino would look like on the big screen? John Travolta made this Sweathog a household name in TV’s WELCOME BACK KOTTER. Two years later in 1977, when director John Badham hired him to play Brooklyn disco street thug Tony Manero in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, Travolta never changed a thing…

Barbarino/ Tony Manero lives on the wrong side of the tracks in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He’s got his job, his family, his friends, his drugs, his dames… and his disco. And one by one, all these things that he believed integral to his quality of life, will come crashing down.

This is what SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is about – a journey into adulthood – but most of the world cannot see past the mirrorball. For good reason. This movie’s iconic disco inferno is burned into our brains, our society and our vernacular. It represents the zenith of what is perceived to be the disco era. It seems almost blasphemous then, to state that FEVER is not a disco movie. Just as GODZILLA is not a “monster movie,” as MILLION DOLLAR BABY is not a “boxing movie,” as UNFORGIVEN is not a “western movie,” SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was never just about flogging a few dance tracks to a numbed generation of burnouts with feathered hair and tourniquet bellbottoms. Oh, there’s lots of disco in it, but as a backdrop to a young man’s disillusionment and search for identity. And a tighter pair of tourniquet bellbottoms.

Poffy_SaturdayNightFever_sm

Cucumber Night Fever

There’s that iconic opening strut, to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive, when we realized we should all be walkin’ that walk if we ever wanted to get laid; it’s right there in the lyrics: “You can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk…” A white man struttin’ like a black man; style, rhythm, sex. And what was that ridiculous falsetto? Is that a guy singing like that? On purpose? And what is he saying? “Dib a-dabba dib a-dibba dib a-dabba dib a-dippa – Stayin’ alive! Stayin’ alive! Dib a-dabba dippa and ev-ry-body’s shakin’ it – Stayin’ alive! Stayin’ alive!” Were we buying this? Hells to the wide-collared body-shirt yes!

There’s the iconic Eye-talian from the borough – “19-year-old” Tony: hairy chest, gold chains, slicked hair, leather jacket, body-shirt, hipster pants, stack heels, posters of ROCKY, Farrah Fawcett, SERPICO… Travolta. Staggeringly handsome young goombah: eyes afire, immoderately sensuous lips, cleft chin, ripped torso. There’s the ritualistic argument around the dinner table with the parents (character actors Julie Bovasso and Val Bisoglio); the insufferable praising of Tony’s brother, Frank Jnr. (Martin Shakar), for becoming a priest. We could all relate to this naturalistic, stagnant family life; father out of work, a caste system that strangles dreams. Yet Tony has his sights set on something that could elevate him above the morass…

Days spent working at the hardware store – but nights spent hunting The Dream at the local disco called Odyssey 2001. He doesn’t quite grasp what The Dream might be, but he and his friends know it involves staggering amounts of puss. The street frankness of this movie also misdirects viewers into thinking it is shallower than it actually is. Yes, Tony is searching for a direction, but he is also very literal in declaring he’s horny and wants to fuck. That doesn’t make him any less credible. It makes the movie more credible.

There are Tony’s shiftless friends, ignorant, uneducated and incurious: Joseph Cali as Joey, Paul Pape as Double J, Barry Miller as Bobby C (eternally panicked over his girlfriend being pregnant and not willing to get an abortion, thereby ruining his life), and Donna Pescow as pining, possessive Annette, who wants to “make it” with Tony so badly, she will accede to gangbanging his friends just to get even with him. (None of the cast would be remotely as fortunate as Travolta in their future careers. Looking back on this movie, it’s like they’re extras in their own supporting roles.)

When Tony meets Stephanie, (Karen Lynn Gorney), new worlds, new opportunities are laid before him, and he must find a way to ease into her seemingly higher caste without The Uncultured Barbarino blowing it for him. Yet she has her own insecurities, covering them by incessantly name-dropping whenever she meets someone new.

And the disco arena itself – an iconic creation from whole cloth: lighted floor, smoke machines, glowing walls, flesh market, Ron Jeremy clone as DJ. (Only few discos sported the lighted dance floor – after this movie, every disco did). This is where the most iconic of this movie’s many spells is cast. Here, Tony is undisputed king; men step aside, women swoon, line up to kiss him, and beg to wipe the sweat from his brow. And when he wants to dance – the floor clears “like Moses parting the Red Sea.”

Much has been said about Danny Terrio being Travolta’s dance instructor for FEVER (especially by Terrio himself, eating out on it for decades), but even before Terrio and choreographer Lester Wilson honed Travolta, he possessed the innate skill, as witnessed in small jocular snatches on KOTTER. Thus he brings a snakecharm naturalism to his moves that few of the other actors possess. Watch the line dance sequence during Night Fever – his friends are quite leaden, and though there are a few pro hoofers scattered here and there, Travolta smoothly steals the show. There’s something extra going on; during that point-up-point-down move, there’s that extra twist in his hips, that extra swerve in his arms. He’s not just ‘pointing up and down,’ he’s meaning it, he’s promoting it, he’s living it, he’s dying it…

And there is Tony’s feature dance sequence (to the Bee Gees’ You Should Be Dancing) that would also become an iconic gem. Before breakdancing would pop-and-lock the 80s, before Michael Jackson cattle-prodded line dancing into the stratosphere with Thriller, there was Gene Kelly, there was Astaire, and now – Travolta. “Whatcha doin’ on your back [echo] your back your back your back?”… A few electric minutes that stunned us, inspired us, moistened us and molested us. And gave this planet a pose to represent “disco.” Strike that pose anywhere in the civilized world – arm-point-up, hand-on-hip, legs-akimbo – they’ll know you’ve got the Fever! Or scoliosis.

Yes, Tony’s sights are set on disco, his Walt Whitman yawp to the cosmos. There’s something there that might save his life, and for one hot minute we also believed this, when bruhda “Fahda Frank” asks him, “Are you gonna do anything with your dancing?” But it is only a part of Tony’s coming of age. It’s hard to believe how little dancing there actually is, in this paean that hit a cultural sweet spot and singlehandedly revitalized the disco industry, which was on its way out before this movie’s release.

It is during these disco segments that the film trips all over its looping (audio replacement):

  • Combined with some haphazard editing, the whole sequence where Bobby C beseeches Father Frank for advice on abortion is a hot mess: “Fahda, she loves the taste of communion wafers…” “Don’t call me ‘father’.”
  • A groupie whines to kiss Tony on the dance floor, her lips clearly not moving, then squeals, “I just kissed Al Pacino!” (Funnily enough, Fahda Frank – who plays Tony’s brother – looks like Pacino!);
  • That woman sitting on the dance floor during Tony’s feature dance, has got to be the second worst dubbing of “All right!” in film history, the first being that stormtrooper who shot Princess Leia and intoned, “She’s all right!”

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge plays a metaphorical role: more than just a road across a river, it separates lifestyles and life futures. Tony clowns around regularly on this bridge with his friends, but it seems they would be content to make assfaces of themselves on this bridge until they’re sixty. When Stephanie acquires an apartment on the other side, something starts the ball rolling toward Tony’s destiny…

From a story by Nik Cohn (Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night), and screenwriter Norman Wexler (SERPICO), John Badham directs in that naturalistic 70’s tone. (A TV director up to that point, this movie would jolt Badham into the feature film universe; he would go on to WAR GAMES, STAKEOUT, SHORT CIRCUIT- in his latter career, back to TV.) We would see all Tony’s dreams and aspirations crushed one by one: His friends are shallow and unfulfilling; Tony subtlely isolates himself throughout the movie, and it would take a death for him to make a clean break. Thug life loses its flavor when his gang raids another gang’s hangout, to even the score for one of their own, and find that their hospitalized comrade reneges on his accusation of that gang, saying he wasn’t sure it was them who attacked him; the victory turns sour; what was once a breezy eye-for-eye escapade now becomes complicated beyond humiliation. Girlfriend disillusionment with Annette, who is typical of the women Tony hits-and-quits, thusly affording her no respect; she compounding the misogyny by immaturely complying with all his wishes. Tony’s simplistic frankness, “Are you a nice girl or a cunt?” is not enough to base any kind of interaction on.

Tony feels respected and appreciated when his boss gives him a raise (of $4), but his boss just doesn’t want him stolen away by contractors, and the job itself will simply end up a back-breaking rut. And his father only has derision for his puny raise. What was a flying high moment becomes bittersweet.

Even Tony’s simplistic notion of kiss-on-the-dance-floor-screw-in-the-car is dashed. During Tony’s and Stephanie’s dance competition, a romantic moment, a sensual zenith when Stephanie – who was playing it sooo cool – leans in and kisses Tony in a spinning, sparkly-eyed embrace. At this surprising turn of events we feel that satisfaction in knowing Tony’s dream girl has relented, has become “his.” But this trope, this finality we have been conditioned to experience over countless movies, is soon dashed when Tony tries to unceremoniously fuck her in the gang’s car. I say unceremoniously, but this ritual has become a ceremony, a habit, mechanical, almost obligatory. And we are as stunned as Tony when Stephanie spurns his advances and it turns into near-rape. For Tony, this is probably the first girl who has defied his seed-spreading protocol.

And the final blow – dancing, where Tony always believed himself king, reiterated by his disco crowd, now forced to realize he’s been but a big fish in a small pond, as the dance competition brings out awe-inspiring dancers from parts unknown. And he’s good enough to see how much better their tourniquet trousers are.

His eyes opened, Tony’s world shrinks from upbeat and carefree to cynical and bitter. If he continues on this path, he will end up as ignorant, uneducated and incurious as his friends.

Time for the young Sweathog to leave the sty. We are left with a freeze frame that denotes a new life on the horizon, a new hope– Uh-oh! As long as that stormtrooper from A NEW HOPE doesn’t do any more dubbing, we’ll be “all right”…

Why are you still reading? You should be daaaaaancin’ – yeeeeeaaaa!

END

SaturdayNightFever_titleSATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (Dec 1977)
aka: TRIBAL RITES OF THE NEW SATURDAY NIGHT.
Director: John Badham.
Writers: Nik Cohn, Norman Wexler.
Music: Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, The Bee Gees.
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow, Bruce Ornstein, Julie Bovasso, Martin Shakar, Sam Coppola, Denny Dillon, Robert Costanzo.

RATINGS-08imdb
Word Count: 2,690      No. 1,126

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Vinny Barbarino • struts his stuff

The Bee Gees • “You Should Be Dancing”
Poffy_DanceManeroDANCE, MANERO, DANCE!
Travolta always finds an excuse to dance.
♦ SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER Dance Sighting: Well, everywhere! In Travolta’s debut starring role, he would start a convention that would last through all his films. You will see my disco fever icon in the sidebar of all Travolta’s films. This film started it all!

Poffy-SezFrom the “Chicks: Can’t Live With Em, Can’t Shoot Em” bin:

• Annette is gangbanged in the back of the car by Tony’s boys. Halfway through, she cries remorsefully; then she makes a suicidal gesture as if to throw herself off the bridge, but is far from doing so. Meanwhile, Bobby C, who’s girlfriend won’t get an abortion, actually jumps.

Which says something about the difference in men’s and women’s perception of tragedy: a woman might cry over the morality of an act she enters into willingly, but compared to a woman who gets pregnant and won’t get an abortion thereby ruining her man’s life – now that’s real cause for suicide!


• FEVER leaves us with a freeze frame of Tony and Stephanie being Just Friends. I beg to finish this unfinished moment…

Though Stephanie is painted as mature enough to rent an apartment on the better side of town, live by herself and pursue a career (which are all, in themselves, snide misogynistic winks – i.e. how precious that a dame can do this all by herself), she is only 20 years old and truly as shallow as anyone on Tony’s side of the tracks, as illustrated by her incessant name-dropping, (“You know that film by Franco Zeffirelli?… You know who came into the office? David Boo-wie…”) Or are we expected to believe she matured during the process of dating Tony? (But then, wouldn’t anyone be mature alongside Vinny Barbarino?)

Was that night she refused his sexual advances meant to convey she is older and wiser than him? But a woman refusing sex is not indicative of anything, merely her prerogative on the night, a stepping-stone that every couple goes through on their way to panty raid. The minute she accedes to a guy as Just Friend is the moment the guy starts cultivating to be More Than Just Friends. How long are we expected to buy this Just Friends fairytale?

They will last as Just Friends about as long as the tub of ice cream she invites him over to eat while watching a romantic movie together. Adding How Deep Is Your Love under this freeze frame ultimately promotes sex, not Platonic relationships – where else can mature “love” between two prime breeding specimens lead? Shopping for disco shoes?

Poffy-Sez
BEE-ing BEE GEE.The Bee Gees (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb) were inextricably linked with the success of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and much is written about this accidental synergy that rocketed them and the movie to the top of charts and awards around the planet. The album they recorded in conjunction with the film, Saturday Night Fever: The Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1977, took them off their career track in the best and worst of ways, and though it remains a watershed moment in Western music culture, the band would complain in later years (with good reason) of being locked into an image they never wanted, planned or foresaw.

SaturdayNightFever_BeeGees

Either the sexiest photo I’ve ever seen, or what I’ll think of in my Method Acting class when they ask me to retch.

The movie was not a “musical” per se (no one would break into song with an unseen orchestra backing them) but it might have been one of the first times source music was matched so compellingly to the action onscreen. Unintentionally! Because the Bee Gees were just writing their next studio album (after Children Of The World, 1976 – which was the actual album that featured You Should Be Dancing, the first complete song Barry Gibb would sing in his now-trademark falsetto) and were approached by their manager Robert Stigwood to provide a few songs for a movie (SNF). They did not specifically write lyrics for the story in the movie (they did not know what the movie was about), yet each song would fit the filmic sequence it was assigned snugger than a pair of tourniquet bellbottoms.

The Bee Gees (who would become the face of this album – not least for their largest contributions in writing and performance) would maintain they “lost an album” that year, as what was meant to be “their” album turned into a collection of songs that were swallowed in the fever of the movie and other contributors to the soundtrack. The album Saturday Night Fever: The Motion Picture Soundtrack would be certified 15x Platinum, staying atop the Billboard album charts for 24 straight weeks from January 1978. It was the greatest selling soundtrack album of all time until Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard (1992).

I wish MY career would go off track so badly…

The Bee Gees • “Stayin’ Alive” live 1977

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