Saturday Night Fever is an iconic, era-defining film. When you think disco, you think Travolta in the white suit, one hand extended as “Staying Alive” plays. While the film certainly delivers its share of fantastic disco moments, the overall tone is a lot darker than one might expect, very characteristic of a filmic era that valued moral ambiguity and darkly realist storytelling over the slick happy endings of today. That’s not to say the film is devoid of cheese, but the overall darkness of the story makes it a heavier experience than one might expect.
The scenes set to music unquestionably work. The soundtrack is one of the all-time best film soundtracks, and one of the most integral. If the songs didn’t work, the movie wouldn’t, but they do, and scenes like Tony’s opening walk down the street to “Staying Alive” and the closing dance to “More than a Woman” are singular, iconic moments. Almost all the scenes at the club are fantastic, from our dreamlike first glimpses to Tony’s floor-clearing routine while his brother’s there.
I was surprised to realize that I was already familiar with virtually every song on the soundtrack. This is what disco was to the mainstream, and it’s music that holds up. It’s not that the film isn’t dated – nobody could confuse it with today. But it perfectly captures a zeitgeist that was probably gone by the time the film was even released. Classics like the impeccably named “Night on Disco Mountain” mingle with the colossal pop hooks of “Night Fever” and, of course, “Staying Alive.”
Dancing is one of the most inherently cinematic actions, and the film does a great job of making each dance sequence unique and relevant to the narrative. What really surprised me was the final dance. I assumed that Travolta’s putting on the white suit would be an elaborate ritual, but it wasn’t even spotlighted, and I don’t think he did the signature hand move while wearing it. That’s a perfect example of the way our culture combines a few essential elements to construct a single image out of something that’s actually more complex.
It’s that complexity that makes the film so jarring at times. Tony is like a Martin Scorsese-light character, dealing with issues of violence, familial tension, and an arbitrary gang war that co-opts the plot towards the end. I respect the filmmakers for trying to lend emotional depth to the goings on, but there are a couple of things that cross the line. One is the aforementioned gang subplot, which has little narrative relevance and winds up pushing the character towards the unlikable side. There’s also an incident at the close that is hard to come back from and makes the ending a bit hard to take.
On the whole, though, it’s an enjoyable and well-crafted movie. The disco sequences are the clear highlight, but the narrative itself has its moments as well. The DVD isn’t exactly definitive, but it’s got some cool stuff. The packaging is the best I’ve ever seen: a transparent case with Travolta’s picture over the disc, which is made up to look like a disco ball. It’s slick stuff. There’s also a director’s commentary, a couple of featurettes, and an amusing DDR-like game that claims to teach you disco moves. Will it? I don’t think so, but it’s good for five minutes of fun, which is more than you can say for a lot of DVD extras.