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Saturday’s Alright For Dancing

By Nicky Charlish.

Saturday Night Fever. Director John Badham, 1977

White suits, jabbing arms, whirling lights, disco beats — it must be the night fever. Saturday Night Fever (SNF), to be precise. This film garnered critical praise (Pauline Kael), and it’s been remembered as being the inspiration for that dance between its star, John Travolta and Diana, Princess of Wales. The fortieth anniversary of its release is a chance to revisit not only its scorching soundtrack (the Bee Gees, Yvonne Elliman, Tavares, The Trammps, K.C. and the Sunshine Band) but some of its features which have, arguably, been overlooked by commentators hooked on the disco-ball glitz of its externals.

From the opening sequence of SNF, where the roar of a train segues into the Bee Gees’ rendition of ‘Stayin’ Alive’, we’re into a fast-moving film which never lets up in intensity. So let’s get down and boogie to the music of the plot. Tony Manero (Travolta) is a Brooklyn Italian-American teenager who lives with his parents and has a dead-end job in a hardware shop. For him, life comes alive only on Saturday nights, when he is king of the dance-floor at the local disco frequented by him and his friends. One night there he is impressed by the dancing of Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), an upwardly-mobile local girl who, subsequently, he gets to know better as they practice their routines at the same dance studio. They enter a dance contest at the disco, which they win (a victory which Tony regards as being unfair — he feels that a competing Puerto-Rican couple should have won but that they were cheated of their prize due to prejudice). Immediately afterwards, he attempts to rape Stephanie, a move which she rebuffs with a knee to his groin. Thoroughly dispirited, he goes with his friends for their customary post-disco larking about on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, during which one of them, Bobby C., slips and dies. After a night riding on the New York subway he visits Stephanie’s flat. Cautiously, she lets him in, and the film ends with not only the possibility of a rapprochement between them, but also that Tony may learn from her how to fruitfully channel his ambition for a better life (she works in a showbiz-media world).

At first glance it’s all very American — a guy from a dead-end background getting a chance of making it into the big time. In fact, Tony’s success was what its celluloid sequel — Staying Alive (1983) — was meant to show (ironically, it enjoyed little of its progenitor’s success). But SNF is, in other ways, not American at all. Or rather, it is, but it’s the America that the guardians of its image prefer to keep under wraps. It’s the America of Dead End, a Broadway play of 1935 about delinquent children growing up on the streets of New York City during the 1930s Depression (the Dead End Kids, a group of young actors who appeared in it, would go on to feature in a number of Hollywood films). Added to that is the America of such films as On The Waterfront, West Side Story, Mean Streets. In other words SNF is a success story filtered through an atypical home-grown presentation of American poverty allied with film noir — and film noir (even when, in the case of West Side Story, it features catchy songs and red-hot choreography) isn’t really American at all, but is an import originally brought by European directors (Wilder, Lang) fleeing Nazism, an import of the spirit America was invented to end. For in the beginning, America — theoretically — was intended to offer opportunity for all, and the frugal log cabin where mom served her apple pie to her ambitious children would have no skeletons in its cupboard.

But in SNF they are rattling round aplenty. The Manero family home is the constant setting for rows. Tony’s father, Frank, is out of work, ashamed at being on unemployment benefit after 25 years of bringing home a paycheck as a construction worker. Tony’s brother, Frank Junior, is a Catholic priest who has lost his vocation and left the priesthood (an early Hollywood reference to the issues and upheavals facing the Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65). Gus, one of Tony’s friends, is beaten up by a Puerto-Rican gang (so much for the American melting-pot). When not the object of ritual verbal humiliation, girls at the disco are there to provide the boys with 20 minutes of sexual pleasure in parked cars. The ill-fated Bobby C. is under pressure to marry his pregnant girlfriend (at one point he asks Frank Junior whether the Pope could give a dispensation for the girl to have an abortion). During the final, fateful journey to the bridge Annette, Tony’s one-time dance partner and would-be girlfriend, is gang-raped by two more of his friends, Double J and Joey.

So how did this seemingly-unlikely pairing of optimism with the downside of American life film come about? It was based on a story by British journalist Nik Cohn entitled ‘Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’, supposedly about Brooklyn nightlife and which he subsequently admitted to fabricating: Tony’s character was, allegedly, based on a British Mod Cohn knew from the Goldhawk Road in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. (It’s impossible not to have a brief fantasy about an imaginary British-based film about this guy’s adventures called say, Goldhawk Night or even — LOL — Bush Fever.) But it could be said that, despite its dodgy origin, the story’s content and the film’s theme both contain a long-standing, widespread grain of sociological truth: the archetypal working-class Saturday night ritual of going out, showing off and getting laid as an antidote to dead-end jobs and, in Britain at least, the systematic crushing of any aspirations to a more fulfilling life. Indeed, Tony reminds us of another Saturday night boy — Arthur Seaton, the Nottingham factory worker and anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which would be followed by the eponymous film two years later. Except that, whilst both boys live for Saturday night, Arthur envisages a life of everlasting hedonism whilst Tony has a flickering of ambition: he might be able to use his dancing to escape Brooklyn, just as Stephanie has used her office-admin skills to achieve the same end.

The film’s release coinciding with the dominance of Punk ensured that it did not get a friendly reception from the high end of the music press. For any music critic who wanted to keep up with the socio-political ethos of the pack, disco music of any sort was a guilty pleasure. In her autobiography I Knew I was Right, Julie Burchill recalls how, after putting in a dutiful night at The Roxy — the London Punk club/shrine — she would relax to the sound of the Isley Brothers’ numbers ‘Live It Up’ and ‘Summer Breeze’. Punk was the only permissible game in town. But it was not the popular reality. In the wake of SNF, white suits and disco dance classes started to take off. In 1979 there was even a British attempt at a home-grown celluloid version, called The Music Machine. Instead of taking flight on the back of SNF’s success it was, instead, a turkey. Starring the late Gerry Sundquist and Patti Boulaye, it was set in the run-down Camden club of the same name before that venue got its fame-inducing makeover as the Camden Palace where, a few years later, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan would market New Romanticism for the masses. And the New Romantic reference is appropriate here, even though it’s seemingly far-removed from the macho world of Brooklyn disco-dancing. A few months before the release of SNF, mega-club Studio 54 had opened in New York. Its heady mixture of exclusivity, glamour and hedonism gave the image of clubbing a new lease of life. It’s difficult not to think that the unique impact of Studio 54 — along with the general impetus given to disco by the success of SNF — were both subliminal influences in the formation of the New Romantic scene with its own stringent door policies and unashamed celebration of stylish excess.

Could SNF be made today? Musically, yes: there are plenty of performers who could give a soundtrack which matches that of the film and — despite the closure of clubs (at least, in London) — hedonism is not dead, as a trot round any major city centre after closing-time at the weekend shows. But from a sociological point of view, it’s almost impossible to imagine SNF emerging onto the screen today. For starters, there would be concerns that the final scene, where Stephanie lets Tony into her flat a few hours after he’s tried to rape her, would provoke a feminist backlash. Given current concerns about STDs the depiction of casual sex in the film’s pre-AIDS age would be difficult today, too, despite that fact that modern society is not exactly a casual shag-free zone (vide Grindr and Tindr). Additionally, the racism directed by Tony’s friends towards Puerto Ricans would cause problems, as would a homophobic incident in the film when a couple of gays are hassled on the street. Such features would be seen as giving aid and comfort to Trump-supporter populism, a criticism which avoids confronting the uncomfortable point that condemnatory populist views on racial and sexual matters may be more widespread than cultural and political commentators are prepared to admit. Yet such well-intentioned attitudes of metropolitan fear would be a corporate loss because they fail to face up to harsh realities which have to be faced down. But — for a filmmaker who wishes, and is prepared, to prepared to challenge orthodoxies — SNF serves as a great example of how to go about doing so. Because, from the film’s first moment on, its combination of superb soundtrack and social squalor not only energises our bodies but stays with us to stimulate our minds.

Nicky Charlish is a freelance writer and proofreader who has contributed to, among other publications, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Midweek, Penpusher and Culture Wars.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 15th, 2017.