I love this movie.
I love the way it focuses on dancing, yet it isn’t about dancing at all. Yes, long amounts of time are given to showing John Travolta light up the dance floor, but the story’s fundamental point is the most subtle: Trying to escape from your boring daily routine, even if it is just for an hour.
That’s exactly what Tony Manero does. He saves up his weekly earnings from where he works in downtown Brooklyn at a crummy hardware store, then blows it all in one day at the local disco joint, where he reigns as king. His female dance partner calls him a walking cliché. In a sad sort of way, it’s true.
But this is Tony’s dream. I quote an aspiring comedian named Rupert Pupkin: “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.” “Saturday Night Fever” is based entirely on this idea. In an odd sort of way, Rupert Pupkin is a lot like Tony Manero. He just has a different dream. We all do.
“Saturday Night Live’s” theme tune, “Staying Alive” (the title of the horrendous Sylvester Stallone-directed sequel), speaks as much truth about life as the film itself. “I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me, I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me yeah” chants a voice in the Bee Gee’s universally known disco hit. As I listen to it right now, I realize just how perfect it is for the movie. It’s a legendary song, and for good reason.
I didn’t grow up during the disco generation. But “Saturday Night Fever” makes me feel as if I had–and that is one of the fundamental keys to a film so incredibly outdated and yet still poignant in our memories. It was the film that solidified John Travolta as an icon, and the film that eventually led to him being regarded as the King of Cinema Disco. (In the Travolta film “Get Shorty,” a criminal threatens a producer by saying that, if he doesn’t pay up, he’ll be “dead as disco.” Ironic.)
Travolta is in his prime spotlight as Manero, a Brooklyn kid aiming to make it big on the dance floor. There isn’t much to the movie other than the need for fame–as brief as it may be–and the most obvious theme of the film, which is learning to treat women as something more than just sex objects.
Tony and his pals all join together at 2001 Odyssey, a crummy disco club with dizzying strobe lights and a constantly-waxed dance floor where Tony is often encouraged to let loose and show everyone his moves. When he’s not doing that, he’s sitting at the bar watching a topless stripper do her thing. And he’s only 19.
Part of this movie is learning to grow up, and treat women as something more than Tony is used to treating them. But that’s one of two primary plots–the other is, of course, trying to break away from a boring life. Tony comes from an Italian background, and he lives in a bad area of town. His mother is proud of her eldest son, who became a priest, and she’s discouraged by the fact that her other son doesn’t seem to care about making anything out of his life. We get the feeling that Tony’s parents once had the same outlook as their son, and fear he may be going down their own path. After Tony gets a raise from $3 to $4, his father tells him that $4 can’t even buy $3. His son swears at him and storms away.
Some of my favorite scenes in “Saturday Night Live” are the human ones, such as when Tony stares in his bedroom mirror, bare-chested, and combs his hair forever, looking over himself with the same pride that Travis Bickle displayed in the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene in “Taxi Driver,” released a year earlier. In the background of the shot are posters of Al Pacino from “Serpico” and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. (Just think, Sly directed the sequel and did a cameo, yet he was, in a way, in the first film, too.)
I also like when Tony is interacting with his dysfunctional family. He’s nice to his little sister when he walks through the door after work, but after working for quite some time on his now-out-of-date hairstyle, he barks at his father when he is slapped during dinner (in one of the rare scenes that made me laugh). He yells at him: “Would you just watch the hair? I work a long time on my hair, and you hit it!” I know that scene has been quoted before, but I quoted it again since it made me laugh so hard.
In one of the finest scenes in the entire movie, and certainly one of the most touching, Tony has lunch with an older girl (who later becomes his dance partner) and tries to impress her by acting mature. But his immaturity shines through–he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about half the time, and when he tries to act smart she counters his moves with true brainpower. In a way, this is the first time Tony realizes that women aren’t as dumb as he thought they were.
This is one of my favorite guilty pleasures for all the right and wrong reasons. The wrong reasons include the dance floor numbers–I love them, and I probably shouldn’t. As for the right reasons…I think we already know what they are. It’s all about dreams. Everyone has some. Whether it’s dancing or whatever, we all have dreams. And that’s why I think “Saturday Night Fever” relates to so many different people on so many different levels.