In 1977, a
low-budget flick about the New York disco scene became a sudden sensation.
Today it looms large in the pantheon of iconic cinema. Several of its moments,
however, allude to another equally iconic film. Well, more so than that Wizard
of Oz/’Dark Side of the Moon’ myth, anyway.
Saturday Night Fever’s success was undoubtedly attributed
to several factors. There are gripping performances, multi-dimensional
characters and a soaring soundtrack featuring the Bee Gees that steals the
show. At the heart of it all is an undeniably compelling story.
Travolta) lives in Brooklyn with his parents, sister and grandmother. He works
at a hardware store and on Saturdays, treks to the local discotheque where he
reigns supreme as the neighborhood’s premier disco dancer. He parties, drinks
and carouses with his buddies then goes home and sleeps it off, dreaming of
more in life. ‘Night fever’: he knows how to do it and has fun but something is
missing and at age nineteen he’s “gettin’ old”. The adoration he receives is
only so rewarding, his relationships superficial. His ignorant friends provoke
outside ethnic gangs, plunging them into brawls and Anette (Donna Pescow), a
confused young woman who tags along, pressures Tony with advances in hopes of
joining the ranks of her “married sisters”. His home life is no less
complicated. Dinner table spats, though run-of-the-mill for the Maneros are
exacerbated by Dad’s unemployment. Nevertheless, we see beneath the surface a
caring, loving family. The “character” of Tony’s nearly silent grandmother is
really to exemplify the multi-generational unit of the Italian-American family.
brother, Frank Jr.(Martin Shakar), the priest who “ain’t a priest no more”. His
decision to leave the church causes a rift within their household and makes
Tony reexamine his own choices. Tony’s brother often comes off as a surreal paradox.
Though repeatedly spoken of, he curiously is never seen with any family members
other than Tony. Were it not for his character being discussed in other scenes,
he would seem a figment of Tony’s imagination. It’s even tempting to think of
him as a component of Tony’s inner psyche. The name ‘Father Frank Junior’
itself, a contradiction in terms, he is essentially a cautionary figure for
Tony to observe. He warns his brother not to act out someone else’s dream but
to do what feels best for himself.
feels very wrong to say the least. His friends are treading down a path of
drugs and recklessness. Misogyny and racism are ingrained in their sub-culture (Tellingly,
network and basic cable presentations of the film censor its racial slurs until
the pivotal diatribe where Tony denounces the group’s bigoted ways. To the
censors, these slurs are deplorable and unnecessary unless used sympathetically).
Looking for a way out, Tony searches new paths. He stares oddly at the Verrazano
Bridge to “get ideas”.
One idea he soon
gets is to try his hand at the club’s dance competition with the slightly
stuck-up Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a fellow Brooklynite who shares a
slowly developing sexual tension with Tony. They meet for lunch and she
belittles him, condescendingly boasting about big dreams and famous people she
has met. His ostensible unfamiliarity with the names she rattles off is belied by
the numerous pop culture images adorning his wall at home. Appropriately, one
of them is of Rocky.
1976, Rocky made a household name of Sylvester Stallone who portrayed
Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia underdog willing to subject himself to anything
for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the world heavyweight championship title.
A Stallone motif
arguably surfaces throughout Tony Manero’s life, even if that name could have stumped him too. Compare Fever with
Rocky and interesting parallels are obviated. Both center on characters
who “take a shot”, using God-given gifts to attain something better in life
than the perfunctory humdrum they face. Tony and Rocky both excel at their craft yet are still perceived as local losers
and each go out of their way to win the heart of a woman who seems their
virtual opposite. Both men sadly realize they have settled in with negative
people who keep them subjugated and bury their dreams. And… oh yeah, did I
mention their names almost rhyme?
significantly, in Rocky, the title hero advises a young girl on the dangers of
allowing boys to mistreat and disrespect her. In vain, he explains how it will
only leave her used, hurt and alone. In Fever, Tony takes on this similar
role of the sage, educating Anette on how there are only “two kinds of girls-nice girls and pigs!” He elaborates on how she cannot be both and must decide
early on in life which to be. From what annals of wisdom this philosophy is
taken we simply do not know, but it is certainly likely that he ‘gets ideas’
from more than a bridge.
In the end, it
would seem, the story resumed with a closing credit sequence as the Bee Gees crooned
“How Deep is Your Love”. Who could have guessed then that the connection would
be driven home when Stallone himself would write, direct and produce Fever’s
sequel, Staying Alive. Tony’s rollercoaster life is further chronicled
a few years later, still ‘taking a shot’, this time on Broadway. And… speaking
of Broadway, guess where Rocky is slugging it out right now?