Saturday Night Fever (Review)

8/10

(spoilers)

Before seeing the movie, I had seen many of the famous dancing scenes, and I had heard about how it had ignited (or revitalized) the disco scene. The film seems to be strictly about disco–the dancing, the fashion, the music and the scene. Underneath that perception is really a film about the working class, specifically a working class young man and woman trying to escape from their world.

On one level, the film is a slice-of-life of a working class Brooklyn neighborhood in the 70’s. The quality of acting and the effective depiction of the situation and pathos of some of the supporting characters–Bobby C (Barry Miller), Annette (Donna Pescow) and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney)–and surprised me. It wasn’t over-the-top or silly, but believeable enough to make me care and feel sorry for them. You really got the trapped feeling, the desperation and hunger for acceptance from many of the characters.

In that way the film reminded me a lot of the recent film, Hustle and Flow. All the characters in that film had a longing to be contibute something significant to a meaningful project. But in the 70’s that desire manifested itself as the desire to be somebody–like Rocky Balboa, Tony Manero (John Travolta) wanted to do something to prove his worth. He was looking for acceptance, because he sure didn’t get it from his family.

But he also wanted to earn that acceptance and self-worth, fair and square; hence his anger and disgust at winning the first place dancing prize because he thought the contest was rigged in his favor. Tony turns out to be a pretty likeable character despite his flaws. And unlike many of his friends, he realizes that his current life is something he needs to escape.

In particular, I like the character arc of Stephanie (and the relationship between her and Tony). In the first scene when Tony talks to Stephanie at the dance studio, she’s real snooty and perhaps a bit sophisticated. After seeing her interact with Tony in the coffee shop, we know it’s all an act. Travolta’s reactions are pretty well-done. On one hand, we see that he wants to dance with her, so he’s treating her with deference, unwilling to blatantly call her bs. Yet, we sense that he realizes that she’s full of it. I saw a guy who had a genuine and sensitive side to him besides all that macho stuff. Finally, we really see Stephanies armor crack, and the acting is really solid. I found the vulnerability and sensitive reaction by Tony effective. I loved the way the director reveals Stephanie’s character, and the way her relationship with Tony develops.

That’s the thing. While this film has a slice-of-life feeling, Tony, Stephanie and their story make it more than that. In that way, the movie reminds me a lot of Mean Streets. Both films feel like they’re showing the audience what it’s like to live in those respective neighborhoods in those particular times. Both both have strong enough characters and stories to be more than a sociological film.

Now having said that, I think the music has aged fairly well. Ditto the dance sequences. Yes, Travolta is not as good as Astaire and Kelly, but he’s pretty good. The director, John Badham, deserves some of the credit for making those dance sequences work. Sometimes particular moves may not look good in and of themselves, but Badham will shoot it in a way that makes it exciting. For example, I liked the way he shot the “More Than a Woman” dance practice session. The camera moves with the actors creating a sense of energy and motion, as if the audience is on a ride. (The practice scene is actually better than the same dance in the contest, which is probably intentional as Tony and Stephanie were supposed to have lost.)

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