Review: Saturday Night Fever + B-Side

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #722

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] The Funky Worm “Hustle! (To The Music)”

[2] The Bee Gees “Saturday Night Fever”

[3] The Bee Gees “More Than A Woman”

[4] The Bee Gees “Staying Alive”

[5] Tommy Faragher “Look Out For Number One”

[6] Cynthia Rhodes “Finding Out The Hard Way”

[7] Joe Bean Esposito “The Winning End”

[8] The Bee Gees “Staying Alive (Reprise)”

Few places can boast the persuasive qualities of a discothèque. It matters not how shy and reserved its patrons as once in every seven-day cycle (traditionally a Saturday or Friday if their week has sucked that badly) they are afforded the chance to let their hair down and shake a tail feather or two. In the same manner as one wouldn’t dream of leaving the house in their underwear but wouldn’t think twice about donning a bikini on the beach, normal rules cease to apply for the six or so hours until the club in question winds down and alcohol is on tap to assist in lower any inhibitions (at an extortionate charge I hasten to add). In short, if it’s mystical properties you’re searching for, then nightclubs are precisely where it’s at.

There are numerous different breeds of reveller mincing about in your average discothèque and I shall focus on the three most frequently found strains here. First we have the wall flowers, those desperate to get in on the action but not yet sufficiently inebriated to throw caution to the wind. Traditionally these dilly-dalliers creep in from the sides like timid algae, awaiting the moment when they no longer stick out like a horse in a hamster cage, and their repertoire of moves comprise the left-to-right slide and perhaps a rump wiggle or two should they be feeling particularly flighty.

Second are those deeming themselves too cool for school and these distant dance hall dwellers can ordinarily be spotted propping up the bar, flat refusing to attach their carriage to any active groove trains. Instead, they embrace their predatorial nature, scanning their immediately surroundings for potential fuck buddies and relying on their façade to lure in unsuspecting victims. Timing is the essence here as nobody wishes to reveal their hand too early but, by the same token, ponder too long and it might all end in drawing the dreaded blank.

By far the most fascinating of the three breeds is the disco don/diva as these natural performers act as conduits for the groove and their moves often defy the laws of gravity. It is unconfirmed whether or not they’re actually born with rhythm or have managed to acquire it over years of hard work and dedication; but none of that matters once they take their spot beneath the sacred glitter ball and strike that pose. In appreciation of the don/diva, it is customary for fellow revellers to clear a space and clap like seals from the sidelines while marvelling at the sublime majesty before them.

Curious as to where I amassed such vast knowledge? Much as I’d love to credit Disco 101 for teaching me the tricks of the trade, it was actually a certain 1977 movie by the name of Saturday Night Fever that set me on the road to enlightenment. John Badham’s mover and shaker is commonly cited, not only as the quintessential disco movie, but also as one of the finest motion pictures of the year it was unleashed.

In stark contrast, its 1983 sequel Staying Alive, directed by none other than Sylvester Stallone, is regarded as little more than a turkey with trimmings. Indeed, it’s considered blasphemous even to mention the two in the same sentence. Well I guess a little of that fever rubbed off on me as I’m about to tackle both for one big double-barreled dance off. Time to get that strut on methinks.

Number of Views: Three
Release Date: December 14, 1977
Genre: Drama/Musical
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $3,500,000
Box Office: $237,100,000
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: John Badham
Producer: Robert Stigwood
Screenplay: Norman Wexler
Based on Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night by Nik Cohn
Cinematography: Ralf D. Bode

Score: Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, David Shire
Editing: David Rawlins
Studio: RSO Records
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Stars: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow, Bruce Ornstein, Martin Shakar, Julie Bovasso, Val Bisoglio, Lisa Peluso, Sam Coppola, Denny Dillon, Robert Weil, Fran Drescher, Monti Rock

One man who knows precisely how to get his strut on is Anthony Manero (John Travolta). This hot-blooded 19-year-old Italian-American male heralds from the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York and has sufficient swagger in his lanky stride to suggest that he knows his way around a dance floor. Indeed, every Saturday night without fail,

Tony puts this into practice at local disco club 2001 Odyssey, where he is widely regarded as the king of said dance floor. Along with his band of merry men,: Joey; Double J; Bobby C and Gus, he is practically part of the furniture and, when the resident DJ spins a tune deemed jive enough, Manero takes to the floor and spreads his spray of feathers like an electrified peacock and promptly lights up the tiles.

Needless to say, this makes him something of a crowd pleaser and his reputation at 2001 precedes him. Alpha males stand in open-mouthed awe taking notes, while the female of the species go weak at the knees every time he busts a move or two from his vast repertoire and throw themselves at him pussy first without a solitary second thought. By all accounts, life is pretty good for Tony, or at least, that’s how it appears on the surface. However, appearances can be mighty deceptive and, once the crescendo comes and passes, it’s a short slide back to a far less glamorous reality.

You see, Tony may be the don of the dance hall, but the other six days of the week require him to shelf his hero status and assume his expected position in society. Working a dead-end job at a local hardware store for a nominal wage, he lives with his parents under their rules and talking smack simply isn’t permitted. The Maneros are very much your average Italian-American family and bicker just like any other Italian-American would.

“Would ya just watch the hair. Ya know, I work on my hair a long time and you hit it. He hits my hair”

Any grievances are shared around the dinner table, where slaps to the head are commonplace and his lacquered to the point of flammable hair is placed under frequent fire for not watching those P’s and Q’s. More often than not, dinner at the Maneros soon descends into outright bedlam, while his father has a hard knock approach to recognizing any of his son’s minor milestones. Thank fuck for Saturday nights.

After a hard night striking poses and moistening panty gussets, Tony and his entourage often head over to the nearby Verrazano–Narrows Bridge for a spot of drunken tomfoolery and this represents the only way out of this stifling ghetto he can decipher. On the other side are the far more luxurious confines of Staten Island and word on the street has it that bona fide dreams can come true there. Tony feels he downright deserves a piece of the action and, while his friends seem content with going nowhere fast with him as their ringleader, he’s starting to get other ideas.

“You live with your parents, you hang with your buddies and on Saturday nights you burn it all off at 2001 Odyssey. You’re a cliché. You’re nowhere, goin’ no place”

This desire to fly the nest only intensifies when he spots local girl Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) grooving the night away at 2001 and is captivated by her grace and poise on the dance floor. Naturally he tries his luck and she swiftly rebuffs his advances. However, the seed has now been sewn and defeat is an option that Tony simply doesn’t entertain.

He lives for the chase and, in Stephanie, this is precisely what he gets as she has no problem dishing out home truths and reminding him how far from a man he is. With all this unspent sexual tension between them (most of which originates from within Tony’s crotch denim), it would be simply unthinkable not to pool their fuel with the 2001 Odyssey Dance Contest just around the corner. Something tells me it’s time the DJ sets the pitch to fever.

Travolta is absolutely magnificent here beneath the roving spotlight and exudes groove from every last open pore, without a solitary brogue once vacating formation. This is all the more extraordinary a feat given the tragedy that befell him midway through shooting when his girlfriend Diana Hyland succumbed to terminal cancer. It was she who’d encouraged him to take the role in the first place and Travolta knew exactly what he needed to do. By channeling all that raw sorrow through dance, he achieves levels of intensity that others can only dream of, and each audacious shuffle, flick and thrust intimidates and exhilarates in equal measure. There wasn’t a man alive who could have played Anthony Manero better.

Travolta doesn’t just thrive through jive though. By all accounts, Tony is a fairly unlikable character and a number of his actions are contemptible. He swears like The Dice Man, is short-fused, argumentative, pig-headed, sarcastic, arrogant, self-obsessed, vain, passively aggressive, racist, sexist, and doesn’t take no for an answer in the throes of one-sided passion. Yet it is fruitless not to fall for that cheeky grin and we are frequently reminded of the beating heart beneath that white polyester suit.

This is never more evident than a scene where Tony recites to Stephanie the precise dimensions of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, right down to the cubic metre, showing the strength of his will to cross over to the green grass on the other side.

This may primarily be Travolta’s show but others caught up in his world ring every bit as true. Local girl Annette (Donna Pescow) is a fascinating subject as her unrequited love for Tony leads her to make questionable decisions that will ultimately define her, close friend Bobby (Barry Miller) is just as despairing although nobody takes heed of his cries for help, and the return of Tony’s older brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) to the fold proves just as insightful.

Having recently disassociated himself from the Catholic church, to the disgust of his once proud parents, Frank Jr.’s fall from grace casts light on the pressure of expectation that is part and parcel of growing up in an Italian family and highlights precisely what Tony is up against if he wishes to realize his dreams. Characters like these are the reason Saturday Night Fever struck a chord with so many as Norman Wexler’s straight-talking screenplay deals in real people and doesn’t mince either words or actions.

Astonishingly, Paramount Pictures held out little hope of having a hit on their hands, as the short-lived disco frenzy was winding down long before its unveiling and it appeared as though they’d missed the boat entirely. Almost $250m in box-office receipts and a further $75m in video rentals was an unprecedented return, but shows just how much everyday people could identify with both the story and its leading man.

However, what truly sets this apart from the competition (aside from Travolta’s mercurial turn) is rather predictably the music itself. Featuring songs penned by The Bee Gees especially for the film and a whole host of infectious disco head candies besides, each one echoes the narrative exquisitely, without Saturday Night Fever ever once feeling like a musical.

It’s no coincidence that Tony’s bedroom wall is furnished with a poster for John G. Avildsen’s Rocky as the two films share a great deal of common ground and Manero’s heart is every bit as much on fire as his “Italian Stallion” counterpart. He may be more lover than fighter, but Tony’s passion to overcome adversity is no less pronounced. This is why, four decades down the line, Badham’s film is still every bit as relevant. It also explains why Stallone took it upon himself to return to the fray six years later. Speaking of which, it’s a short jaunt to 1983 from here so whaddya say we get our strut on?

 

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: July 15, 1983
Genre: Drama/Musical
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $22,000,000
Box Office: $64,800,000
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Producers: Sylvester Stallone, Robert Stigwood
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone, Norman Wexler
Cinematography: Nick McLean
Score: Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb
Editing: Peter E. Berger, Mark Warner, Don Zimmerman
Studio: RSO Records
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Stars: John Travolta, Cynthia Rhodes, Finola Hughes, Steve Inwood, Julie Bovasso, Charles Ward, Norma Donaldson, Jesse Doran, Joyce Hyser, Frank Stallone, Kurtwood Smith

It was always going to be a Herculean task measuring up to a film as iconic as Saturday Night Fever and Stallone’s sequin studded sequel was quickly dismissed as a lazy cash-in bereft of redeeming qualities. To be fair, it was still one of the ten top grossing movies of 1983, but the general consensus was that Staying Alive was little more than a well dressed turkey. While I’m not about to suggest that it is fit to shine the shoes of Badham’s original, there are few motion pictures quite so ripe for reappraisal. John Wilson’s Official Razzie Movie Guide lists it as one of the “100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made” and he’s right on one count as it’s a blast from start to finish. However, bad it most certainly isn’t, simply different. And it achieves this without once feeling unfamiliar.

We swiftly reacquaint ourselves with our leading man six years later and, lo-and-behold, he’s finally figured out how to cross the bridge to the dazzling lights of Manhattan. Alas, that’s as good as it gets for Tony as he resides in a fleabag hotel, working both as a dance instructor and waiter at a local dance club to make ends meet. Most of his time is spent daydreaming about the elusive big break that appears more pie in the sky with every call back that never comes and, while Manero he has refined his behavior considerably since we last caught up with him, old habits are proving to die decidedly hard and they ordinarily entail the opposite sex.

After sneaking backstage at a theatre production to try his luck with well-to-do English dancer, Laura (Finola Hughes), Tony manages to land a plum role in the chorus line for her upcoming Broadway show, “Satan’s Alley” and things appear to finally be on the incline. Where the route to Stephanie’s panties was long and arduous, Laura is only too happy to trade bodily fluids and naturally Tony presumes that exclusivity is on the cards. However, our player has been played as going steady doesn’t have a place in her hectic schedule, whereas stringing him along for her own amusement is sole agenda.

Meanwhile, his relationship with fellow dancer Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) pretty much plays the same in reverse. She is clearly besotted with Tony as she’s willing to accept some fairly humongous double standards in order not to lose him from her life. He feels it’s his divine right to date other women, while poor Jackie isn’t afforded the same freedom to operate. Yet no matter how much he lets her down or breaks an implicit promise, she forgives him every time by default. What plays out is essentially a love triangle, although there’s only one end the audience should ever be hoping for. If he’s too blind or dumb not to spot a good thing when it presents itself, then he deserves every ounce of emotional torment Laura can lay on for him.

If Saturday Night Fever was Rocky in polyester, then Staying Alive is Rocky IV in spray-on spandex. The sooner you accept that fact, the sooner you can get back to enjoying the kind of film that could only have existed in the eighties. Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance had already done the rounds by this point and Stallone adopted a similar approach to telling his tale.

Music is still an ever present and still instrumental to certain key scenes, but we know damn well that it’s all about the finale and the journey to get there is loaded with cliché. In that respect, it surrenders the very quality that made the original strike a pose in the first place and has every right to be deemed a failure. However, it succeeds on another level entirely and this simple three-way dynamic ensures that our interest remains vested.

This may come as a shock but Travolta isn’t even the best thing about Staying Alive in my humble opinion, as Tony tests our patience and sympathy to its limits by repeatedly straying from the one true path he should be taking. Let’s not get things twisted, his liquid movements are every bit as breathtaking to observe and two years of rigorous preparation is evident in every lengthy stride he takes.

But it’s co-star Rhodes who dazzles brightest, the long-suffering Jackie whose well-being is of uppermost importance, and she throws all of herself into the role and more besides. This proved a bone of contention with the leagues of Manero groupies looking purely to pet his trouser snake, but attitudes were changing by the eighties and it could no longer be all about him. In Jackie he has the ideal foil to his self-absorbed shenanigans and we’re willing them on to get it together as we head towards the all-important showstopper climax.

The conclusion itself drew a great deal of criticism and I disagree with this viewpoint entirely as the big opening night of Satan’s Alley is as grand a spectacle as they come and captures the very essence of the hunt exquisitely. Travolta is afforded the chance to prowl his quarry through all manner of low-level smoke, fire, ice, flashing lights and laser beams, then granted his own improvised solo which culminates in balancing Laura’s entire body weight one-handed above his head like a trophy.

The amount of upper body strength alone this would have required is extraordinary and shows just how dedicated Travolta still was to perfecting his craft. The closing swansong itself may be glam to the point of spam but it certainly can’t be accused of being anticlimactic.

It’s well over thirty years now since Staying Alive first slid on its legwarmers and that’s more than enough time for the original’s many fans to accept that it was never destined to measure up to the original. While the two films are oceans apart in some respects, Stallone’s sequel is nowhere near the dud it was dismissed as on release and has actually aged rather well, all things considered. There may be a great deal more style on display than substance but, when it equates to so much in the way of guilty pleasure, I’d say Anthony Manero has more than earned himself that one final strut.

 

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

 

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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