The success of the almost instantly dated Saturday Night Fever was twofold: There was the soundtrack as well as John Travolta’s north-by-northwest finger, as immortalized in Allan Carr’s career-making promotional campaign. But, from a purely empirical point of view, it was the music that drove the entire package straight into the zeitgeist. The movie itself was only the third-highest grossing film of 1977 (well behind George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi one-two), whereas the soundtrack album was the bestselling album ever until the arrival of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But even at the time, disco purists balked and DJs held their noses as they were forced to spin truly overplayed tracks by the resuscitated Bee Gees, corny discofied versions of classical symphonies (or, as my friend once put it, “one fourth of Beethoven’s Fifth”), and even dopier Price Is Right showcase grooves by David Shire. (The two best tracks on the whole enterprise, Kool & the Gang’s salsariffic “Open Sesame” and the Tramps’s relentless “Disco Inferno,” were previously released.)
In retrospect, the less said about something many still claim as being the definitive compilation of disco hits when it contains not even a single track by Donna Summer, the better. Almost more people in the country owned the double album throughout 1978 than didn’t, which means that it probably accounted for roughly two-thirds of the pile of vinyl detonated at the Chicago White Sox’s Comiskey Park in 1979. And if that’s true and my guess is accurate, I can’t say I blame the stupid, drunken, homophobic masses. Divorced from its context within the film, the calorie-free dance-pop of “Stayin’ Alive,” “If I Can’t Have You,” “Night Fever,” and “Boogie Shoes” embody the mellow, shallow, poly-blend tackiness of the disco scene above sea level.
Which is why it’s strange to come to the film now and see that the filmmakers are almost on the same page as those of us who remain skeptical of the album’s historical standing, which may explain Robin Gibb’s claim (as cited on Wikipedia) that he’s never actually watched the movie. Disco is presented as neither particularly glamorous nor as a viable means of social transcendence for the young bridge-and-tunnel crowd. The dance studio where Tony Manero (Travolta) practices his finger- and hip-thrusts is run by an oily pussy hound who, in his spare time, teaches middle-aged sadsacks rudimentary disco moves. Tony’s eventual dance partner, Annette (Karen Lynn Gorney, showboating her forced Brooklyn accent), approaches the disco-contest circuit with measured condescension, instead espousing at each available lull in the conversation her endless roll call of superstars she meets during her work day—as a typist. Even dancers of notable skill like the Puerto Rican and black couples at the 2001 Odyssey club dance-off don’t see any glory; the trophies they earn are inevitably handed off to the white contestants.
Behind the music, Saturday Night Fever is more or less a chip off of Rocky‘s block, with a more heroic spin on the he-lost-but-he-really-won ending, but a far less earned stab at social betterment. After spending half the film staring at the Verrazano Bridge, Tony comes to the conclusion that a life spent primping his thinning hair, shaking cans at the corner paint shop, fighting with his arrogantly ethnic parents, bashing fags and spics with his crew, and winning racially-rigged disco contests might not result in a fulfilled existence. All the 2001 Odyssey offers him is the chance to impress a narrow—albeit adulatory—crowd, and even then only one day a week. In the end, Tony’s social yearnings are actually a whole lot closer to the mark of disco’s true cultural underpinnings. Saturday Night Fever‘s heart is actually in the right place. It’s ears, though? That’s another story.