“You Should [Still] Be Dancing”: Saturday Night Fever at Forty

For all of us children of the 1970s, forty years have passed since John Travolta strutted down that Brooklyn street swinging his hips and a paint can to the tune of the Bee Gees’ hit song “Stayin’ Alive.” Film critic Gene Siskel once called Saturday Night Fever his favorite movie–and with good reason. The opening scene is perhaps one of the most memorable in movie history, and many Americans will be watching it again when the film is re-released in select movie theaters on May 7 and 10. With the exception of the 1979 film Breaking Away, no other film better captures the late-1970s American zeitgeist.

Certainly, there are many other momentous events from 1977 to remember. In January, Jimmy Carter was inaugurated the 39th president of the United States, and Alex Haley’s miniseries Roots debuted on television. Fleetwood Mac released Rumours in February. In April, Carter made his famous “sweater” speech to urge Americans to conserve energy. Star Wars, that other blockbuster movie, premiered in May. Elvis died in August. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines of the southern rock band Lynrd Skynrd were killed in a plane crash in October.

For me, though, no other creative work evokes childhood memories of the late 1970s like Saturday Night Fever (both the movie and the soundtrack), which may initially seem strange since those of us growing up in rural Alabama were far removed from Brooklyn and the urban disco scene. Still, the movie had widespread appeal across the country.

Perhaps one reason Saturday Night Fever resonated beyond its Brooklyn setting is that its director, John Badham, grew up in Birmingham Alabama. In fact, he is the brother of Mary Badham, the child actor who played Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird.  Over the weekend, John Badham commented on Saturday Night Fever in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times: “The only thing I knew about Brooklyn was how to spell it. And yet, when I read the script I was so excited about these characters. People related to them.” For southerners like me, it’s tempting to speculate that Badham’s southern roots had something to do with the characters’ relatability.

Indeed, the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever demonstrates that in the late 1970s, young urban and rural Americans still shared common experiences—a sense of community, where just about everyone knows everyone else (for better or worse). John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, works in a small hardware store in Brooklyn. He’s been sent on an emergency errand to pick up a particular color of paint a customer wants but the store doesn’t have in stock. The movie’s action begins during the nineteen-year-old Tony’s journey back to the store with the paint. As he walks down the street, his priorities are evident: the snazzy clothes hanging in the shop windows and the pretty girls walking down the sidewalk. Yet despite the city crowds passing by Tony, there’s a element of small-town familiarity. Tony pops his head through the service window of a streetside pizza shop, where the worker addresses him by name: “Hiya Tony! One or two?” Tony replies, “Two, two. Gimme two. Dats good.” A bit later, he sees a shirt in a store window, stops in, and gives the clerk five dollars to hold it on lay-away. When the clerk says, “Wait for your receipt,” Tony walks out the door and says, “I trust you.”

Tony’s home life reveals the kinds of family tensions brewing during the economically and spiritually challenging years after Vietnam and Watergate. In the scene depicting Tony’s elaborate dressing ritual to get ready for the disco, Tony’s father urges him to come down to dinner. Tony tries to rebuff him, but the elder Manero insists.  At the dinner table, Tony has draped a bib around himself to avoid getting spaghetti on his Quiana disco shirt, which emphasizes he is still a child in his parents’ house. The family erupts into an argument, primarily because of the father’s defensiveness over losing his construction job. The mother is concerned about Tony’s older brother, who has entered the priesthood but has not called home in a while. (Later, it’s revealed that Tony’s brother has left religious service entirely.)

In contemporary times, people often express nostalgia for those evenings when the entire family sat down to dinner together.  The film suggests that the family dinner experience was not nearly as positive as some like to remember. Just as often, it was a place where worried parents vented their frustrations and expressed their fears while children were forced to sit and listen. The audience can easily understand why Tony seeks an escape from the mundane stress of his life at home. Disco dancing at the club provides an outlet.

Tony is a high school graduate who believes life is passing him by. At the disco, he meets Stephanie Mangano, who tries to transcend her Brooklyn roots by moving to Manhattan to make a better life for herself working as a secretary. She talks down to Tony and criticizes him for hanging out with his friends and going dancing every Saturday night. At one point she says, “You’re a cliché. You’re nowhere. On your way to no place.” Yet Stephanie is just as insecure and adrift as Tony is. She drinks tea with lemon because all the “refined” Manhattan executives do. She is self-conscious about her Brooklyn speech and corrects herself ([Bay Ridge] “ain’t Manhattan…isn’t Manhattan.”). She brags about supposedly sophisticated outings she’s gone on during her lunch breaks from her secretarial position.

If young people in contemporary times worry about student loan debt and living in their parents’ basements well into their thirties, youth in 1977 faced their own uncertainties. Both Tony and Stephanie represent the changing cultural and economic landscapes young people were experiencing. A high school diploma had become insufficient to get ahead. Tony’s level of education might have secured him a good job a decade earlier, but in the late 1970s, the country was moving away from a heavily industrial, manufacturing, blue-collar economy to a more white-collar, service-oriented economy. Stephanie senses this reality and tries to compensate, but the movie suggests the transition will be much harder for Tony.

Still, the audience roots for Tony to find his way. He knows all the precise construction specifications for the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge that connects Brooklyn to Staten Island. He expertly explains to Stephanie how high the columns extend into the air and how many tons of steel and yards of concrete were required to to build the bridge.  He also tells her how many million cars pass over it in a year. The bridge is an important symbol in the film. It represents the way out of a dead-end life. However, the movie also suggests that without the people with the knowledge and skills to build the bridge (people like Tony’s father and maybe even Tony himself), no one will go anywhere.

I was in the seventh grade during the 1977-1978 school year and wasn’t concerned with the teenaged angst dramatized in the movie. For us younger kids (especially us girls), the music  and dancing were everything. We made up dance routines to almost every song from the soundtrack. We were electric sliding, hustling, grape-vining, and step-ball-changing all over the gymnasium during the spring of 1978 as we prepared for our big debuts on P.E. Night. I thought the best routine was choreographed by my classmate, Karen Pinyan. All the girls in the dance wore white polyester shorts and black t-shirts reminiscent of Travolta’s white suit and black shirt. The gym lights were dimmed, and black strobe lights illuminated the girls while they danced to “Night Fever.” There might even have been a disco ball.  I cannot imagine the famous Studio 54 being any more exciting.

Later in the early 1980s,  when “disco fever” was subsiding, almost everyone in my hometown tried to pretend that the disco era was just a bad dream. Many of the boys swore they weren’t really influenced by disco music and fashion and had always been hardcore rock ‘n roll enthusiasts, listening only to “cool” music like the Rolling Stones, Lynrd Skynrd, and Molly Hatchett. (Molly Hatchett. Seriously?) One need only look back at the photographic evidence from our 1977-78 yearbook to demonstrate that many of them protest too much.