If you listen to the jaded rock DJs and all the dance floor haters, disco died in 1979.
An ironic belief, as there are still a myriad of radio stations which use disco (and funk) as their primary format, and the better tunes are still spun by historically savvy DJs at many nightclubs (yes, actual clubs, I’m not just talking about hearing “YMCA” at your standard wedding reception).
Disco’s enduring legacy aside, the film that brought the genre's music, fashion, and lifestyle from the hippest clubs in New York and LA to the consciousness of suburbanites and grandparents alike was Saturday Night Fever. Unbelievably, the film is now three decades old, a fact being celebrated by the new 30th anniversary edition DVD.
While Fever gets unjustly knocked by some (mostly by those who never even bothered to actually watch the movie) for being a disco flick (as they falsely think it is in the same category as such fluff as Thank God It’s Friday or Can’t Stop The Music), as it was and is a landmark film. A time-period piece? Yes, it is. But the film so perfectly captures the angst, passion, and energy of frustrated young adulthood and searching for an identity that it resonates as well today as it did initially. If you replaced the original soundtrack and fashions with current hip-hop styles, Saturday Night Fever’s storyline would still work in 2007.
And as far as this being a “disco movie," note that John Travolta and his friends do hang at a local Bay Ridge disco (the now extinct 2001 Odyssey), but only visit the club three times throughout the entire movie. Fever is not a musical nor is it a lighthearted disco movie. It is the rough-edged and sometimes harsh story of Tony Manero (so masterfully played by John Travolta he was nominated for an Oscar) and his dead end existence in a neighborhood (the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn) that he is so obviously too big for. Yes, he is the “king” of the disco when he gets there, and that is where he shines in life, as his daily life is not so quite as optimistic. He works as a clerk in a hardware/paint store; his home life is at home with his family who is very dysfunctional (yet very real and his family actually portrays some interesting family crises most realistically); and a quartet of friends/gang (they refer to themselves as The Faces) who are loyal and in awe of Manero, but are a bad influence and so are apparently holding him back.
While Travolta’s acting has been long appreciated, the supporting cast also gave many superb performances. Donna Pescow is a standout as Annette, who is obsessed for the attention of Manero, whom she swoons for to the point of severe desperation. A scene where she wants to be with Manero so badly that she presents him with Trojans, only to be have him rebuff her (very coldly), is so sad and Pescow’s reaction so genuine it breaks your heart. And while Joseph Cali and Paul Pape are amazing as two of the more dominant members in Manero’s circle, Barry Miller steals the show as Bobby C, a hurting teen (whose mind is all-consumed with fears concerning his expectant girlfriend) who is really only part of The Faces as he has wheels and chauffeurs The Faces around. He is an emotional mess and he steals the scene from Travolta and company at the climactic and tragic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge showdown. Why Miller was not given a Best Supporting Actor nod is a mystery.
Fever is also a great New York film and captures the sometimes unfriendly vibe of the times so well (e.g. racism, bad economy, unemployment, etc.) that it is on a par with Mean Streets and is a film that Martin Scorsese could have done (though he would have done it much differently, and John Badham’s direction is dead-on).
And if you were aware in 1978 of how hot the soundtrack was, you would know that the Bee Gee’s songs were inescapable for a couple of years after the premiere of Fever (not to mention that the soundtrack was the biggest selling record in the world, a title it held until the release of Thriller).
The 30th Anniversary DVD has many extras; most interesting are the comments with several cast and crew members. Barry Miller adds some very astute comments with his modern day observation that Fever is on par with Rebel Without A Cause and how Bobby C. and Manero’s relationship was akin to the one between the roles that James Dean and Sal Mineo portrayed in Rebel.
Saturday Night Fever is the Rebel Without a Cause for the '70s and the number of people who still say to this day that seeing Fever changed their lives is abundant.