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.
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!