Friday, October 29, 2010

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

USA, 118 minutes
Director: John Badham
Writers: Norman Wexler, Nik Cohn
Photography: Ralf D. Bode
Music: Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, David Shire
Choreography: Lester Wilson
Editor: David Rawlins
Cast: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow, Bruce Ornstein, Julie Bovasso, Martin Shakar, Val Bisoglio

Dated, of course, but only because it is so '70s—or is that a tautology? It must be my way of saying "iconic," which is the burden this one has set itself and fulfilled, deliberately and practically from the start, with the posters of Farah Fawcett-Majors and Sylvester Stallone and Al Pacino in the bedroom of Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) finishing the job that the opening credits sequence previously attempted (and succeeded!) with the "Stayin' Alive" and foot walk and pizzas and layaway shirt and everything. You probably know the basics. Lower-middle-class Italian-American kids (read: hoodlums and/or at-risk youth) getting out of high school to face the big world, not yet knowing who or what they are or can be. Complications ensue, with dancing to Bee Gees songs. But does it work, and if so, does it work still? The answer, surprisingly, is yes, and yes again, for me anyway. One thing that helps is that it's more low-key than we may be conditioned for any more, surprisingly so, and at the same time probably more coarse as well. It appears to bear still a hard "R," for the nudity and the language. Gratuitous bare breasts and the word "cunt" make appearances here, and while the former was more or less SOP for the movies in the '70s the latter was not. This is no Grease camp, actually, but a rather gritty story of surviving and coming of age in Brooklyn in the '70s. And, yeah, Travolta is pretty good, both as a dancer and, even more surprising for me, as a screen actor. He is particularly good in the family scenes, where he is funny, always believable, and often touching. The dance floor, meanwhile, effectively represents the other world that everyone here yearns so incoherently for—the bobbing bodies graceful and almost stately, the music energizing still. The dances of the time do appear odd and eccentric, with copious random finger pointing, untoward squats, various crotch-pulling strolls about the floor, etc. And then all this "Latin hustle," "New York hustle," "tango hustle"—I guess maybe that was for real at the time, but it sure as hell sounds like tin-eared parody now. I only saw people flailing themselves about at the discos I went to. But then the iconography reaches out and smacks you in the face again—Tony Manero and Stephanie, his dancing partner and Brooklyn escapee role model (played by Karen Lynn Gorney), in the big studio, rehearsing, playing a number, holding hands, leaning back, spinning one another 'round. On the soundtrack: "More Than a Woman" by the Tavares. The visions of disco balls and haze and coifed, writhing bodies. Beautiful.

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