Thoughts On: Saturday Night Fever (1977)
A nineteen-year-old paint store worker’s life takes a turn when he finds a new dance partner.
I was way too young when I first saw this movie; I must have been around ten, and was expecting a movie about a disco dancing competition – one with a lot of Bee Gees songs – after seeing a trailer. For the first 5 minutes or so, this is what you get, but, beyond this… not so much. As you could expect, ten-year-old me was quite surprised at the dark depths to which this movie dares to burrow. And re-watching this today after not having seen this in years, I was struck even more by Saturday Night Fever as this is still a darker movie than I was anticipating it to be. (However, this may be due to me watching a different cut of the film when I was younger, though, I can’t be sure of this).
With one of the greatest and most iconic soundtracks of any movie… ever, and with aesthetics and a style that helped further popularise disco world-wide, it’s impossible to say that this film isn’t a classic. Added to this, Saturday Night Fever goes under many peoples’ radars as one of the most affecting and poignant “lost teen” movies. The archetype of this genre of film that most will refer to is of course Rebel Without A Cause. After this, however, it is very easy to jump to The Graduate and then all the way up to the 80s and the John Hughes movies. Skipping past the bulk of the New Hollywood era, however, we all miss Saturday Night Fever, which, in my view, is a much more darker and grimier, also less melodramatic, version of Rebel Without A Cause. In such, this film delves deeper into the angst and fear of having to confront oncoming adulthood without being given the tools or the means, by ourselves and by our upbringing, to stoically and successfully do this. For this, Saturday Night Fever certainly affects me more than any other “lost teen” movie that I can bring to mind.
With Rebel Without A Cause, I’ve always felt that the teens were a little too childish, and with The Graduate, the angle of painting the protagonists as bumbling, immoral and stupid certainly works, but, it just doesn’t resonate so well with me. Conversely, Saturday Night Fever really embraces the darkness that can reside within ‘adults’ moving out of their teens. And though this story is based on a fabricated magazine article and, in turn, a fabricated idea of the 70s teenager and the ‘disco scene’, it seems to capture a realistic balance between self-awareness, naivety and stupidity in its characters. Because of this, when all the expected questions and themes are raised, they seem to be materialised genuinely. For example, what do I do about the dead-end path that life has set before me? What do I do about my dumb-ass friends? What do I do about my neurotic parents? What do I do about my inadequate and useless self? Many of these questions are answered for John Travolta’s Tony before he asks them. However, when Tony does go ahead and begin asking these questions, he does so with a facial expression or an action before speaking.
One of the best examples of this would be when he thinks he has lost his job, and returns to the paint shop only to have it given back. Merely looking at the workers who have been employed at the small shop for years upon years, we hear him scream: is this all I’m supposed to amount to? And this is after he enthusiastically accepts a minor raise from his boss. The juxtaposition of these two events then says a lot about how Tony is growing and developing without any guidelines or knowledge of what to do – and largely because he’s only ever critiqued, never really praised, which leaves him drowning in between two choices of either transitioning into a void of self-contempt in which he begrudgingly accepts the life-long job at the paint store or an empty well of vapidness as a small-town disco hero that sleeps around and jerks off with his friends. However, reflecting upon this, this narrative utilises his relationship with Stephanie, who is trying to find a path in the world with more open eyes, but, ultimately, an equal sense of haphazardness.
Time and time again this narrative pulls up parallels like this that formulate this core theme of ‘lost’ by juxtaposing two sides of the same coin, creating a seemingly useless two-headed coin with no tails. Without a thesis and an antithesis, there can be no synthesis. Translated into the “lost teen” genre film, this means that two lost teens do not make an adult. At least, this is how those around Tony seem to view themselves and life. And so, without transformation and without preparation for the road ahead, the characters of this narrative, as is suggested by Tony’s boss, are just waiting to be fucked by the future.
As poignant and expressive as this idea is, we do find such a suggestion in a film like The Graduate with its iconic ending. However, Saturday Night Fever ends with hope and with an implication that these two sides of the same coin, Tony and Stephanie, can transform into something that is more than just a symbol for chance; something that doesn’t rely on the unlikely probability that everything will be fine. And so it’s this that reaches out of the screen whilst Saturday Night Fever plays. This is then a film about escaping escapism and the feverous Saturday night which we live for to die upon; the night in which we become a zombie with abstract dreams and a synthesised, soporific buzz. For the daring choices of plot and character that are used to project this story, Saturday Night Fever is certainly more than a classic in my view.
Before we end, I’ll note that this post speaks pretty well with the previous post on Inside Out in being about the exiting of teenagehood as opposed to the entering of it, so check that out. But, with all of that said, I’ll leave things with you. What are your thoughts on Saturday Night Fever and all we’ve covered today?
Inside Out – The Reconciliation Of The Fractured Self
Black And White In Colour – Satire, Poorly Thought Through
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