Film

The Vast Days of Disco: “Saturday Night Fever” and the Politics of Dancing

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Disco isn’t dead and never has been — not even the mass psychosis evinced during the grotesque spectacle known as “Disco Demolition Night,” held in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in the summer of 1979, could snuff the music out. (Or, put less charitably: “Disco didn’t die. House murdered it,” per a T-shirt worn by a celebrant at a dance party deep in Prospect Park that I stumbled across a decade ago.) But one of its totems now officially enters middle age: John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever, first released forty years ago, returns to theaters nationwide on May 10 with an updated sound mix and four minutes added to the original 118. With this revival comes the opportunity to consider anew — or to choose or switch sides in — a partisan battle that’s been fought since December 1977, the month Saturday Night Fever premiered: Did this resolutely straight, white movie about a musical idiom and subculture that was predominantly gay and black betray and banalize disco or democratize it?

By the time Saturday Night Fever began filming in mid-March 1977, disco had been ascendant for at least three years; some of its early top-ten singles include the instrumental “Love’s Theme” by Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, from 1973, and Gloria Gaynor’s Jackson 5 cover “Never Can Say Goodbye,” from ’74. Saturday Night Fever‘s producer, Robert Stigwood, the Australian-born music grandee who had been crucial to bringing the rock operas Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Tommy (1975) to the screen, was eager to make a disco movie. In Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the cover story for the June 7, 1976, issue of New York magazine, the mogul had found a promising source text: “I see a $100 million movie here,” Stigwood said. (The film would gross almost two and a half times that.) Cohn’s article, a chronicle (largely fabricated, as the journalist admitted years later) of 2001 Odyssey, a real-life Bay Ridge disco, was reworked by screenwriter Norman Wexler, whose earlier credits included scripting two other New York stories, 1970’s Joe and Serpico, from ’73. Saturday Night Fever was to be the first star vehicle for the actor Stigwood had recently signed a three-film deal with: John Travolta, eager to expand beyond the confinements of Vinnie Barbarino, the dim Italian stallion he played on Welcome Back, Kotter, the Bensonhurst high school sitcom that had made him an object of pinup lust.

As Tony Manero, the peacocking nineteen-year-old prince of Bay Ridge in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta remains one of the most intriguingly irreconcilable icons of the Seventies. His intro, no matter how many times you may have seen the film, still thrills: Below the elevated tracks where a B train is roaring past, Tony struts down the street while on a midday work errand, the rumble of the subway adding to the percussion of “Stayin’ Alive” — one of six songs on the SNF soundtrack by the Bee Gees, the falsetto-favoring trio (signed to Stigwood’s RSO Records) that had made the move to disco in ’75 with “Jive Talkin’.”

During Tony’s sidewalk swagger, he wolfishly ogles two women, just one instance of the backward behavior he and his sexist, racist, and homophobic buddies regularly exhibit. Their entire lives are limited to deepest southwest Kings County, miles and light-years away from Manhattan, which looms, in the very first shot of SNF, like the Emerald City across the East River. A chasm also gapes, as disco scholars like Tim Lawrence have pointed out, between the 2001 Odyssey, where Tony rules the dancefloor among the uniformly heterosexual and predominantly Italian-American habitués, and the more intimate Manhattan discotheques where an almost exclusively gay clientele gathered — nightspots such as the Loft, Flamingo, and the Tenth Floor, clubs that boasted varying levels of racial diversity.

In a 2011 essay, “Disco and the Queering of the Dance Floor,” Lawrence censures SNF for “enact[ing] the reappropriation of the dance floor by straight male culture inasmuch as it became a space for straight men to display their prowess and hunt for a partner of the opposite sex.” As the 2001 Odyssey patrons clear the light-pulsating floor so Tony can swivel and thrust while the Bee Gees shriek “You Should Be Dancing,” his spectacular solo gyrating — choreographed, as all of Travolta’s numbers were, by Lester Wilson, a gay African American — epitomizes what Lawrence detests. Tony’s solitary hustling and grapevining contrasts wildly with the ecstatic “oneness” promised by disco, as throngs of gay guys yield to the rhythm en masse, a scenario unforgettably described in Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel of homo night life, Dancer From the Dance. He writes of his revelers, “Now of all the bonds between homosexual friends, none was greater than that between friends who danced together. The friend you danced with, when you had no lover, was the most important person in your life…”

Also insupportable for Lawrence is SNF‘s Bee Gees–heavy soundtrack, “which threatened to leave viewers with the impression that disco amounted to a new incarnation of shrill white pop.” But some first-responder disco devotees, notably the longtime Village Voice writer and editor Vince Aletti, loved the sound of the Gibb brothers. “Their phrasing is tight, each word clipped, precise, compressed into a brittle squeal, often underlined by twitching guitar and pumping percussion but off-set by strings hung like a silken curtain in the background,” Aletti wrote in the February 13, 1978, issue of the Voice, near the beginning of the SNF soundtrack’s 24-week reign as the number one album in the country.

Among latter-day appreciations of SNF, Alice Echols, author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2010), makes a solid case for saluting, rather than reviling, the film, arguing, contrary to Lawrence, that it tries “to expand, not constrict, the parameters of masculinity.” Echols scrutinizes the homoerotic voltage of the scenes in which Tony, a casa Manero, is filmed in nothing but tight black briefs. In the first of these, the camera slowly, adoringly pans up Tony’s near-naked body as he lies prone in bed. SNF‘s director wanted the segment to go even further, but Travolta said no, sort of. “As a movie star, he turned down Badham’s request to get out of bed with no pants on,” Frank Rose wrote in his waggish profile of the actor, “Travolta Puts Out,” which ran in the Voice dated December 19, 1977. The idol “did offer a compromise, however: he would sit up in bed in his black bikini briefs and, you know, ‘adjust himself.’ ” Four decades later, the time is right for this image of Travolta to replace that white-suited, finger-pointing, grim-looking dancefloor martinet.

Saturday Night Fever

Directed by John Badham

Paramount Pictures

May 10

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