Saturday Night Fever (1977): John Badham’s Masterpiece, Disco Movie, Starring John Travolta, Music

Do the hustle! Ring my bell! Disco-o-o duck! In 1977, while disaffected British youth were violently thrashing to the pummeling beat of the Sex Pistols, disaffected American youth just across the Atlantic were gallantly “strutting,” like knights and ladies, to the soft disco rhythms of the eternally high-pitched Bee Gees.

The enormous and obnoxious disco craze of 1977 and 1978 in America, which had its origins in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, was induced by John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever, a zeitgeist movie–arguably the best disco movie ever made

The film enticingly broadcast the new social rituals of the Bay Ridge discotheque throughout the country, which quickly became the social rituals of clubs in every major city. Gold necklaces, like tribal attire, adorned the polyester-clad bodies of young American males who desperately tried to imitate the dance-floor gymnastics of America’s newest movie star, fresh from television, John Travolta.

In the film, the weekend lifestyle of Travolta’s character, 19-year-old Tony Manero, is presented as an all-out religious ritual, from primping before the mirror prior to going out to playing dangerous games on the Brooklyn Bridge after a full night of disco dancing and back-seat lovemaking. Tony’s religious lifestyle stands in contrast to his brother’s religious lifestyle as an actual priest. Predictably, Tony’s brother has a crisis of faith and leaves the Church before the film is over, while Tony’s shamanistic dancing magic at the Disco 2001 is ultimately his ticket out of Brooklyn (hell) to redemption in Manhattan (heaven).

The idea for the screenplay, which was written by Norman Wexler, came from a July 7, 1976 New York magazine cover story entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” Writer Nik Cohn and painter James McMullan spent a few months before the article was published in the trenches studying the unique subculture of Bay Ridge. McMullan contributed paintings of the disco lifestyle, which became the inspiration for the look of the film, and ultimately for the look of discotheques and disco fashion in general throughout the States in 1978.

The tease for the article, on the Contents page of the July 7th New York issue, introduced readers to: “The rise of a new generation in the suburbs, specifically the young Italian men of Bay Ridge. Unlike the kids of the sixties, these youths are not dropouts, revolutionaries, freaked out on flower power or meditation. They’ve gone into jobs obediently, somberly. But once a week, on Saturday night, they explode. Sometimes they have fights, sometimes they get drunk, but mostly they congregate at a disco club where, surrounded by awed, pliant girls, they surge across the dance floor like soldiers across a battlefield, churning out an endless array of dances in perfect form and formation.”

Director John Badham (who later would direct Blue Thunder and Wargames, both in 1983) and producer Robert Stigwood translated Cohn’s words and McMullan’s paintings into a film, which became a landmark in American culture, decidedly putting the youth culture of the 1960s out to pasture once and for all.

The extent of the film’s success was certainly unexpected. In its first 31 days, it grossed an amazing 31 million dollars. During its initial run alone, it grossed over 110 million dollars. The film’s success can be attributed to Stigwood’s expert tapping of the youth market: his realization that it was time to give American youth something new to believe in; specifically, a new kind of music.

The now infamous soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, which Stigwood orchestrated to include a plethora of high-pitched Bee Gees sing-alongs, established a series of music industry records as it produced hit single after hit single throughout 1978. The album quickly grossed much more money than the film: 285 million dollars in first 8 months of release.

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack set a precedent for the two-album soundtrack, which was also a big success with Grease (1978), but in the end disastrous for double soundtracks to The Wiz (1978) and especially Stigwood’s film version of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1978). Still, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack success was later repeated by successful soundtracks to such films as The Big Chill (1983) and Top Gun (1986). The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was a huge seller because it had a vast breadth of appeal: it was soft, palatable disco music, barely even funky, yet quite danceable. It was acceptable to middle-class America.