Saturday Night Fever

(John Badham, USA, 1977): Nearly forty years after Saturday Night Fever busted disco out of the urban ghetto and sent it to die in the suburbs, it’s clearer than ever that it’s a movie about living desperately in the moment because the present is the only place worth living. Even if only when you’re dancing, even if only in your blow-dried head, and even if only for the length of a Beegees song.

When Tony Manero (John Travolta, shiny and new, and all of 23 years old), tells his paint-store boss to “Fuck the future!”, he comes as close to a declaration of militant self-awareness and purpose as he ever gets in this movie about awakening to the utter pointlessness of his life, and in the process aligns himself to that other brief musical rallying point of the young urban disenfranchised of the butt-end baby boom. But Tony’s punk cred is strictly old school, in the angry upstart immigrant hooligan sense. If Tony has any awareness of the noise being made by those kids whose fucking of the future involves safety pins and re-purposed biker jackets, let alone those stripping beats from old funk records for black and hispanic block parties in the Bronx, he’s only hearing it distantly, from across the span of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge where Tony sits dreaming of anywhere but here, which is in this case is Brooklyn before the barista apocalypse. But Tony’s means of sticking it to tomorrow is disco, not punk or hiphop, which means even his preferred form of avoiding tomorrow is already yesterday.

Of the three top-grossing movies of 1977, Saturday Night Fever was only one, distantly tracking Star Wars  and Close Encounters, not just thematically but literally planted in the now and on the street, on which Tony’s cuban heels clicked so divinely as he delivered paint to the irresistible four-four rhythms of “Stayin’ Alive.” For the future was coming whether Tony was ready and/or willing or not, and it — or at least a wish-fulfilling, mass-cult, back-to-the-womb cocoon-wrap version of it — was about to sweep not only Tony but the kind of movie he appeared in into time capsule oblivion.

What seems most consistently to surprise people who watch the movie out of its time, but which was frankly almost as bracing then as now, is how low-to-the-ground and unromantic Fever is, how thoroughly convinced it is not only of the shallowness and futility of Tony’s dreams of dance-floor deliverance, but of the circumstances that drive the poor, beautiful but painfully dim backseat stud onto the floor of the 2001 Odyssey disco in the first place. In long-view terms an heir to the Depression-era musical in which underclass strivers took to stage as the only available means of self-actualization and brutally competitive hope for reaching the stars, Fever in the short-term was a Hell’s Kitchen-sink melodrama of strangulating blood ties and self-immolating hoodlum misadventure, as much influenced by Mean Streets, Sidney Lumet and the whole 42nd street cinema of junkie tragedy as it was glam fantasy.

Indeed, what strikes most vividly — again then as now — is how dramatically and unequivocally the 2001 Odyssey disco itself (the name providing another unsubtle reference to the desperately escapist function the future plays in providing fleeting fixes of beamed-up transfiguration) is offered as the meagerest of strongholds against reality. It sits sad and ugly on a parking lot, features a depressing strip-bar adjacent to the dance floor, and only comes alive when Tony and his even dimmer cohorts — racist, homophobic, junked-up back-seat gang-bangers nearly every one — bring both enough cash and delusional wherewithal to invest the dive with sufficient projected bullshit to lift it to where Tony can take the floor and show us just what keeps bringing him back long enough to go broke and hustle semi-gloss for another miserable week. On the floor, with the lights pumping adrenaline, energy and light-sabre stabs of colour into his body from above and below, Tony is the King of Saturday Night and the 2001 Odyssey the mothership to the stars the name suggests. But even then, even when the dance floor beckons and Tony is merely a stubbed-butt away from the kingdom, the movie is almost puritanically insistent on maintaining our awareness of how futile, ephemeral and pointless this all is: the pathetic presence of the soul-stricken kid on teetering platforms (Barry Miller) who’s knocked up his girlfriend and only gets to hang around because he’s got a car, the women who allow themselves to be treated like shit because it’s the only alternative to being treated like nothing, the constant stressing of intolerance, hatred, racism and fear as the only ties that bind this crew of oblivious losers together.

Note even how ultimately sexless Tony’s transfiguration into the King of Saturday Night is: how his biggest stepping-out moment (to “You Should Be Dancing”) only comes after he brushes off his overly-available partner (Fran Drescher) and commands the floor himself, how even his vehicle for extra-dimensional deliverance is strictly a solo pod. (He doesn’t even fuck his uptown fantasy-partner — Karen Lynn Gorney — instead reverting to accepted  gang protocol by opting for an attempted backseat assault.) Call it narcissism or call it willful delusion, but Tony’s fantasy only has room for one passenger, and it’s about to burn up entirely on re-entry to earth’s atmosphere — as the movie prepares us to know it must and would. As a cautionary fable about the enduring power, stark reckoning and treacherous promise of pop music for those who need to buy into it, Saturday Night Fever is as uncompromising a movie as any. That it ultimately turned out to be based on an article — by Nik Cohn, published in New York magazine in 1976 as ‘The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’ — that turned out itself to be entirely fabricated and bullshit — somehow only makes its articulation of this essential spiritual truth that much more poignantly on the money.

Yes, it’s a movie locked and soldered to its moment, but it’s also a movie about the intoxicating allure of the moment — in its most enhanced, outrageously overdressed and artificially pumped form — for somebody who has nothing outside of that moment. Tony is locked in the moment because it’s all he has. That the moment itself is fleeting is exactly what gives Saturday Night Fever its paradoxically lingering pertinence and power: this is a movie about a man about to outlive that moment, released to a future there was no dancing away from. (Paramount Home Video)