Before watching the movie:
This is a movie it’s difficult to cut through the public consciousness to find out what it’s actually about. Ask anyone what Saturday Night Fever is, and they’ll talk about Disco and dancing, lights and leisure suits, and John Travolta, and they don’t say anything about why those got to fill two hours of screentime.
Apparently, this is about a guy who thinks that dancing is the only thing that’s going to lift him out of his dead-end life. Was that so hard? Okay, it’s not as much fun as nostalgia, colors, and music. But it puts everything into perspective.
After watching the movie:
Tony Manero has a dead-end job and a dysfunctional family, but on the weekends when he goes out to the club, his dance skills are awe-inspiring. His main dance partner, Annette, is pretty good on the floor, but while Tony wants their relationship to begin and end with the dancing, Annette wants it to be more romantic, or at least physical. When she tells him about a dance contest with a huge cash prize that could go a long way toward giving him the ability to move to Staten Island and out of the mess of the rest of his life, he agrees to dance with her, until he convinces a prettier and better dancer to be his partner. Stephanie is a bit older than Tony, but while she’s not sure he’s on her level of intelligence, she’s intrigued by his energy and impressed by his dance skills, and agrees to a strictly professional partnership for the contest. While they practice, Tony has to navigate his job, his parents’ disapproval of him, his friends’ expectations, and Annette still hanging around, meanwhile forming a level of intimacy with Stephanie he’s never known or cared about before.
Let’s get it out of the way: the music is a time capsule of disco hits (original songs by the Bee Gees as well as other classics that predate the movie), and the dance numbers are well-choreographed and performed. I’d say it captures the glitz of the Discotheque scene, but what do I know about that outside of this movie and direct homages to it? The story it’s based on actually used Mod culture as a reference, since the writer didn’t know Disco at all. Let’s say it codifies what Disco should be/is remembered as.
However, having seen the movie now, I’m not sure it will ever be about music and dance again for me. It’s a slice of life/coming of age story in the slummy urban areas of New York. Tony’s outlet could have been anything, it merely gives flavor to the story. There are some aspects of it that are informed by the free-spirited, youthful culture of the 70s, but many elements of that culture could fit in almost any era, and the others are somewhat cyclical. It’s been said the movie encapsulates pre-AIDS promiscuity, but after the paranoia of the epidemic subsided, cultural promiscuity seems to have returned to almost the same mentalities. Though that might be a bias of mine from coming into awareness of things as AIDS faded from the horrifying mystery killer to just the top of the list of bad things that could happen if you’re not careful. I could say more, but I’ve already gone on too long on this tangent.
At first, I disliked Tony’s dismissal of Annette, who just seemed like a nice girl he was shutting out. However, as it went on, my sympathy for her ebbed a bit in the middle because she kept trying when he’d made himself pretty clear. In retrospect, she compromised her standards a lot because of her fixation on Tony, and didn’t get anything she wanted for it. While she should have tried to move on, it’s easier after the fact to see her downward path as a hanger-on trying to fit in any way she can. Similarly, Bobby C. sneaks into the story, becoming important a lot sooner than you realize, while on the other hand, Tony’s brother Frank Jr., the family priest leaving the church, seemed like he was going to have more importance than he ultimately did. I really enjoyed his brief appearance where he mainly just dropped his family-shaking bombshell, delivered some sage advice to Tony, and then left again, and I would have liked to see more of him and his story.
This film was somewhat darker than my awareness of it let on, and then suddenly went even darker, as was necessary to give Tony his push. Maybe it’s easier to remember it as the colors, chords, clothes, and choreography. But we drastically shortchange it in doing so.
Watch this movie: hopefully more prepared for the reality of it than I was.
Don’t watch this movie: for any one reason.
Don’t look for: these pithy taglines to continue. Next week Yesterday’s movies turns four years old, and I haven’t been satisfied with the gimmick in a while, so I’m dropping it.