Cine-East Film Club Presents #57: 1977, Saturday Night Fever (John Badham)

by George_East on November 10, 2014

Frank Manero Sr: ‘Four dollars? You know what four dollars buys you today? It don’t even buy you three dollars

In the last few weeks I’ve seen a couple of films about music and dance sub-cultures.   In the London Film Festival there was Mia Hanson-Love’s Eden (I’m not sure if it has theatrical distribution in the UK yet and therefore whether it will be getting a proper release) about the house and garage phenomenon in Paris from the early 1990s, as a couple of djs escape the expectations of their bourgeois families through dance music.

Closer to home, but still seemingly light years away was Northern Soul, a film which has its own musical sub-culture on the tin lid.   A tale of a couple of friends from a northern working class town on its uppers, who find escape and meaning for their life through dancing, djing and being part of the self-contained world that was the northern soul scene.

Other films that follow this basic premise include Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom and last year’s tale of the Northern Irish punk scene against the back drop of the Troubles, Good Vibrations.

All of these films share a basic story arc of the world of the musical sub-culture acting as a place not only of escape from drudgery but also where the otherwise unremarkable and anonymous can have status and excel. To be frank Eden is worth seeing but flawed in its sprawling repetitiveness over its decade and a half long time frame (though a bit of me thinks that kind of reflects the music it represents) and Northern Soul is nearly a complete stinker, with only the extraordinary music and a scene in which the awestruck main protagonists enter Wigan Casino for the first time raising it from the very bottom of the barrel.

The granddaddy though of this kind of film and far and away the best of its type is this Week’s Cine-East Film Presentation, Saturday Night Fever.   It is a film which unfairly gets lumped together with Grease in the popular mind – both star John Travolta, both had gazillion selling sound track albums (in the case of Saturday Night Fever in the top 10 selling albums of all time) and they came out within a year of each other. But other than that, they are about as a far apart as it is possible to imagine. Saturday Night Fever is an earthy (it was the first Hollywood film to include ‘blow job’ in the dialogue), gritty and at times out right depressing portrayal of life in a working class Italian-American neighbourhood of Brooklyn.   Grease is feelgood teen girl pap.

The entrance of Tony Manero at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever, with the camera largely focusing on the movement of his legs down the street as he struts like a peacock, eyeing up women along the way, as the Bee GeesStayin’ Alive plays is one of the great openings in cinema.  Manero is shown as confident, cool and alive.   Yet the purpose of his walk is not to go to get to a club or a cool bar, it is to get a tin of paint that the decorating materials shop he works in has run out of, for a customer who is waiting for him (the customer is played by John Travolta’s mum – a bit of trivia for you).

Manero may know how to dress and he may know how to walk, but that doesn’t mean he is going anywhere. Manero is 19 and will be seen to be pathetically grateful when he is given a pay rise   of initially $3 per week, rising to $3.50 and then $4, when his boss, Fusco (Sam Coppola) is embarrassed about just how grateful he is for someone ‘saying something nice to me’.   When Manero is later taken back by Fusco after being fired for taking an unauthorised day off, Fusco tells him that he is his best salesman and that he likes to look after his staff, pointing to two older employees who have been with him a decade or more (Manero’s future is laid before him – working in Fusco’s shop for the rest of his working days).

Tony’s family are traditional working class Italian American. His older brother, Frank jr, is a priest having doubts. His mother is a devout catholic. His father has been unemployed for the past 6 months and is getting resentful of his lot – the factory has closed, inflation is rampant.   The great American post-war dream of plentiful work and economic security is at an end.

Although Tony and his friends (Joey, Double J and Gus) live in one of the world’s great cities, their geographic horizons are as limited as their economic ones.   They spend their time in their own neighbourhood cruising around, picking up girls, getting into fights with the local Puerto Rican gangs and drinking. Teen pregnancies, stabbings from knife fights and early deaths lie ahead of them.

Twice they will drive onto the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (which separates Brooklyn from Staten Island) but neither time do they actually drive across it.   Manhattan, when referred to (in wildly exaggerated terms) by the Tony Manero’s  Travolta’s dance partner and the object of his desires, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) is spoken of as almost a mystical place. Similarly Tony will only leave his neighbourhood twice in the film, once to help Stephanie move into an apartment in Manhattan (the reason he loses his job) and the last scene when he visits her there.

In fact Tony doesn’t even dream of leaving the neighbourhood. You don’t get the impression that it has even occurred to him until Stephanie says she is moving to Manhattan. Stephanie constantly name drops the celebs she has met through her job but the closest Tony is going to come to them is the posters on his bedroom wall (Farah Fawcett, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky) or being compared to Al Pacino (a poster of whom in Serpico has pride of place on his  wall).

Tony and his friends get the status and meaning for their life from their nights out at the 2001 Disco – where they have a reserved table and are the ‘faces’. It is how they stay alive. The film has a wonderful long scene of Tony getting ready to go out – pulling on his high waisted trousers, picking out a shirt, spending an age getting his hair perfect. 2001 is all about display and performance, being the centre of attention, the alpha male at the disco.   And Tony is this in spades – he owns the dancefloor, he has women begging him to dance with him (in a reversal of both the usual gender roles and the usual way round, he remarks at one point that women only have sex with him so that they can dance with him).   The disco scenes are wonderfully choreographed and energetic.   Travolta glides across the floor, covering every inch with his twists and steps and turns.

But remember this is the 2001 disco. It is their local club. In your head – from all of the times you’ve seen the disco line dance sequence led by Travolta with the spinning glitter balls and the flashing multi-coloured floor you probably remember it as a Studio 54 style mega-club, an exclusive place where the beautiful hang out.   But this is not what Badham portrays – 2001 is a bit of a dive, there is a perfunctory stripper in the bar next to the dance floor and a fat bloke at a little table taking the entrance fees. You know that there is precisely no chance that Tony would even get past the velvet rope at Studio 54.

If Manero is King of the Saturday Night, his kingdom is small and insignificant.   Remember the big dance climax that the film builds to is only for a $500 prize. That’s all. It is not and never suggested to be a way to something bigger or a ticket out of the neighbourhood. Yet it matters more than anything to Tony and his belief at the end that the competition has been rigged in his and Stephanie’s favour because he knows the Italian-American owners and they don’t want to give the top prize to the more deserving Puerto Rican couple, shatters him completely.   Even this one thing that he has, that he is, is a lie.

And the ending, as he reconciles with Stephanie in her Manhattan apartment pledging to leave his old life behind, does it really point the way to a new future for Tony – a break with the cycle of his life and a chance to move on and up. The terrible Sylvester Stallone directed sequel, Stayin’ Alive will suggest that this was indeed Tony’s life arc after what we see in Saturday Night Fever. But I’m not so sure, what is Tony going to do in Manhattan (as Stephanie says, she can at least type)? What work is he going to get? What club will let him in to strut his stuff? Is the ambitious and social climbing Stephanie really going to be satisfied with him?

Isn’t it more likely that he goes back to Bensonhurst and works at Fuscos and being the king of the Saturday night at 2001? At least that is until the Reagan revolution hollows out what’s left of the economy and the shops close and disco goes out of fashion and the club shuts down. After that, I’m sad to say, that I’m not hugely optimistic for Tony’s future.

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