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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The First and Soon The Last Days Of Disco

Catching Saturday Night Fever in 1977

There was a 16mm collector I dealt with in the 70's who had a startling resemblance to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, which he accentuated via disco garb, a gold cross around his neck, and hair blown/gelled to stand-still. His was lifestyle to which many aspired for what turned out to be a short while, but when this fad burned, it was sure enough a disco inferno. My junior year roommate would take post-graduate dance lessons so he could score like Travolta. That didn't necessarily work out, but Arthur Murray was enriched for it. Disco fit comfortable in the cheesy shoebox four-plex where I first saw Saturday Night Fever. When Travolta walked down that street in opening credits, I figured someday they'd laugh aloud at this, but years proved me wrong, for Saturday Night Fever plays well as drama, dance recital, or 70's update on Rebel Without A Cause. I wouldn't want the era back --- you can have the 70's and most of its so-called Second Golden Era movies --- but this one has values beyond tired engine of nostalgia that drives us back to stuff seen during impressionable years.

We had a club scene in my college town, but I was gone from there before Saturday Night Fever hit. Well-known was fact that it transformed bars and dance joints all around, nightlife catching fever and mimicking the film's every detail. There was a local lime pit they called the "Brick House" that duplicated, indeed went one better, the sleaze underlying Saturday Night Fever's club scene. Not a few of former Elementary School peers were corrupted there. Drugs seemed the handmaiden of disco, Brick Housers there to use, narc, or both. I never got round to disco dancing for lack of aptitude and unwillingness to venture into loud places where you couldn't hear folks talk. Saturday Night Fever, then, was more or less limit of my exposure to the life. Did I miss much? Fashion would turn on disco soon enough. Serious music folk disdained it from a start line, and the style today invites little beyond faint ridicule. Why then, do I turn on the Sirius 70's channel every time I climb in the car?

The clothes were horrific, men's shirts like bleached snakeskin. Bell bottoms were an affront even as we wore them. I'd hear a voice saying, Take that off, you fool!, it being my own and addressed often into mirrors. Talk about Wrong Then, Wrong Now. Radio was glutted with Bee Gees soundtrack tunes. I remember Stayin' Alive being interrupted with news that Elvis had died. So goes one epoch as another takes its place. The Saturday Night Fever album, and eight-tracks, sold beyond dreams of Midas. Was a new record set by this soundtrack? Youngsters wanted to see the movie, but were denied access by an "R" rating. I wonder how many theatres observed the age restriction. Colonel Forehand had earlier let Ann in to see The Godfather when she was eleven, after all, but Paramount smelt money they were missing and so cleansed Saturday Night Fever to qualify for PG status. I remember the slogan: It's Now Rated PG, Because We Want Everyone To See ...

I snuck Hardee's hamburgers into aforementioned shoebox for Fever's matinee. They fit comfortably in each pocket. All the Hanes Mall concession counter got out of me was price of a Coke. As previously asked, was there anything so stripped-down and austere as theatres built in the 70's? We didn't get stereo sound around here until venues elsewhere were tired of it. Screens seemed the size of televisions today, but didn't look as good (I saw Star Wars the first time in what amounted to a closet). In fact, 35mm circa '77 seems not a patch in hindsight on clarity courtesy Para's EPIX channels, where Saturday Night Fever plays HD-frequent and improves on dim-lit pic-going days. I'll not kid myself to having it made back then, certainly not insofar as crummy theatres generally sat in (but hold on, was this peculiar to venues within driving distance of me, or were conditions everywhere as blighted?). Saturday Night Fever being effective drama is happy bonus to music for which it will always be better known. The Rebel Without A Cause links are visible in parental strife, and there's a Sal Mineo kid to worship Travolta's lead. Saturday Night Fever was a hugely influential show --- it's just that the influence didn't last long --- there being but brief time before a changing pop culture discarded the film surely as it would disco.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I have some memories of this film when it was released in Argentina; I was six years old at the time so I had to wait years to be able to see it when it finally made it to TV around 1986. What I do remember from the original release days were a big number of clips of the disco dance in black and white (there was no color TV then), the posters and the Bee Gees music playing everywhere even though I never liked it nor that falseto. Movies from the seventies in a contemporary setting have dated badly, at least visually. When I did finally manage to see this title I was surprised that the drama was far better than the music and the coreography.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Not funny? I laugh and laugh nowadays watching SNF. Hilarious.

4:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson considers interesting aspects of "Saturday Night Fever" and fad movies to come:

Thing about the movie is that it ultimately dismisses Disco as sad, phony glitz in a dead-end world -- like a last-reel Production Code cleanup. The end of the film piles on racism, gang rape and suicide to drive the point home (I half expected the disillusioned priest brother to run on camera and yell "God doesn't exist!"). Travolta, suddenly enlightened, escapes to the comparative Oz of Manhattan.

Since the paint peeled from Disco pretty quickly, that take plays even better now. Interesting to compare to the many movies that didn't question the glory and staying power of each fad to come down the pike: "Xanadu", "Flashdance", "Sgt. Pepper", and cheaper but still irony-free tales of sexy aerobic instructors, flashy skateboarders, video game players, break dancers, etc. who find love, fame and success through the massive acceptance of their art. Even "Fever's" sequel, 'Stayin' Alive," posits that there IS a world where hot sexy moves deliver fame, fortune and glory instead of a sad diversion.

I miss those late-night movies about the aerobic instructors, clinging to their integrity (working at the glitzy gym instead of the really glitzy gym) and winning the Golden Legwarmer in a competition that seems to get as much press as the Super Bowl. And I'm still waiting for one about a working-class Internet troll who makes it to the glamorous world of cable news.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Randy A. Riddle said...

I used to get the Blackhawk catalogues back in the 70s and remember them carrying prints of the full SNF feature for sale - a rather odd bird amongst the Keatons, Chaplins, Griffiths, and Laurel and Hardy pictures Blackhawk usually hawked.

8:29 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

It works because it's essentially an updated Warner Brothers take on Disco. Travolta steps in for Garfield, though the female lead here is only a pale imitation of Ann Sheridan. I would never have compared it to "Rebel without a cause", though. Disco, in it's purest, original intent, was only ever about the "liberating qualities" of sex and drugs, and SNF was a grade school imitation of this particular life - when the music stops, the movie falls apart. But its has that dirty, noisy, grimy, sexy seventies filmmaking style that's streets ahead of what passes for 'reality' in contemporary American filmmaking. Movies today are much too 'clean' looking. The technique stinks of film school. And most of the people reading these posts are older than todays average filmmaker, and I don't want to watch kids movies anymore. There's an excitement about watching SNF, an energy, and I caught the same vibe watching the vivid opening scenes of 1941's "Juke Girl" last night, that's totally lacking in, say, "American Hustle", which tries hard to recapture the same eras glories. It's a time capsule and it's impact is still with us today - Disco never went away at all. It never left movies, or music, or fashion. For better or worse.

6:38 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just like to point out that in addition to the the '70's channel on SiriusXM, there is also a dedicated disco station on channel 54.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

The shoebox in Concord, NH was exactly like those within driving distance of you. (We had one grand old palace, The Capital; a cat pee scented dump, the Concord; and the sleek new shoebox, Cinema 93, showing newer -- and sometimes "artier" -- releases, though named after the adjacent highway.)

It's where I saw Star Wars, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a GWTW reissue that might have been the 70mm, all on a screen that in hindsight seems no bigger than my current living room monitor. Even at the time I knew it was lacking.

And as for the leading ladies Karen Lynn Gorney and Donna Peskow being "pale imitations of Ann Sheridan," in the early 80's I met someone who'd been involved in the casting of SNF. He said the supporting roles were intentionally cast with lesser lights, as one of the main purposes of the film was to make a movie star of then TV star Travolta -- at which it succeeded brilliantly, though it could be argued that it would have made him a star anyway, and been a better film, had it had a stronger supporting cast.

3:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I listen to Channel 54, Rae. Only complaint is that sometimes they play the overlong album or "disco" versions of songs that I prefer at the old single length.

That's very interesting about the SNF supporting cast, Neely. As I recall, Peskow had that ABC series in the wake of SNF, but Gorney sort of disappeared, other than a rather startling pictorial in a men's magazine published several years AFTER the release of SNF.

3:29 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Donna Pescow's series was the sitcom "Angie," remembered mainly for its theme song performed by Maureen McGovern.

I have a SiriusXM radio too but it's usually tuned to the Radio Classics channel. Not the same as it used to be at Sirius pre-merger; they repeat shows more often and have the adenoidal Greg Bell as its only host.

8:15 PM  
Blogger scott said...

"When Travolta walked down that street in opening credits, I figured someday they'd laugh aloud at this, but years proved me wrong..."

No, you were right.

11:29 AM  

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