Saturday Night Fever (1977): Disco Musical about Rites and Rituals, Launching Movie Cycle

The smash hit musical starring John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever inspired a series of subsequent dance films, but none as successful as their predecessor.  The cycle included Linda Blair in Roller Boogie (1979), the Village People’s Can’t Stop the Music (1980), and eventually the off-the-mark Sylvester Stallone-directed Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive (1983).

aturday Night Fever also opened the way for such profitable 1980s dance films as Urban Cowboy (1980), Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987). Not all of these movies were about disco music; some featured country music, which reentered American pop culture in the early 1980s.

The most memorable scene in the film is when Travolta dramatically clears the dance-floor of Disco 2001 and performs an incredible dance solo which incorporates moves known at the time as the Dolphin Roll, the Scissors, the Bus Stop and the Freak. In other dance scenes in the film, the dancers generally perform versions of a single dance, the Hustle, which soon became America’s Number One Dance.

An entire fashion trend based on the clothes displayed in the film gained momentum in 1978 during the film’s extended run. Saturday Night Fever was responsible for making the classic three-piece white leisure suit, which fit Travolta so well, a virtual Saturday night uniform for young men in the late 1970s. Try as they might, clothing stores across the country could not keep the suits in stock because the demand for them was so high. “Our three-piece suits are selling like hot cakes,” said Ron Rossi of Ziedler and Ziedler in Los Angeles at the time.

Saturday Night Fever was an important turning point in American fashion, for it brought about a shift away from the shaggy hairstyles and faded blue jeans of the early and middle 1970s. Millions of Americans resigned their shaggy manes to hair brushes for the first time in years, not to mention to hair driers and even Vidal Sassoon’s special $ 25 “Travolta layered haircut.” Other fashion items which came from Saturday Night Fever were the Cuban heels which enjoyed a spell of popularity, those clingy back shirts, and of course gold neck chains.

The film’s influence was felt all over the dance-floor, and also in dance schools everywhere. Besides introducing the general public to minor dances like the Dolphin Roll, the Scissors, the Bus Stop and the Freak, Saturday Night Fever made the Hustle into the first national dance since the jitterbug. Joan Pikula wrote in Dance Magazine at the time that: “For some, dancing is a release, an outlet for the daily frustrations and monotonies.

For them, abandonment to movement is an addendum to life – supplemental rather than essential in nature. These are the people who Charlestoned through the ‘twenties, jitterbugged through the ‘fifties, and moved in solitary fire and fury through the `peace and love’ music happenings and exploitive go-go clubs of the rocking ‘sixties.” On the average, dance studios across the country doubled enrollment for Hustle classes in the wake of Saturday Night Fever.

Meanwhile, the clubs were packed with dancers trying out the steps they had learned at dance school. “It’s the most phenomenal thing since the Beatles,” Jack Alix, a Washington D. C. rock promoter said at the time. There were long lines for Travolta look-alike contests at dance clubs, while women also tried to look like Travolta’s girlfriend in the film, an ambitious secretary played by Karen Lynn Gorney. In the pre-AIDS era, millions of John Travolta and hopeful Karen Lynn Gorney hopefuls sought each other out for one night stands on the dance-floors of America.

Underlying all of this dance club activity was a subtle reemergence of the American dream brought about by Saturday Night Fever. People hoped to make it big just by dancing, to dance their way out of their respective bad situations like Tony Manero does in the film. For this reason, most dance clubs offered cash prizes for the dance contests and the look-alike contests.

In the film, after a soul-searching all night subway ride, Tony finally makes it to his happy ending, opting to shack up with Gorney in Manhattan, and Hollywood comfortably subdues the previous realism of the story. Tony has made it out of Bay Ridge with his own two feet (and certainly not with his brains), unaware that in the process he has called millions of Americans to join him in trying to escape. As Rudy Guiterrez of Pasadena California put it at the time of the film’s release, “It tells the truth about boring jobs and what the clubs mean to us.”

It must also be noted that never before had American males wanted so desperately to look like a television star. In 1977, John Travolta was not really a movie star yet. He was a situation comedy actor who amazingly had made a successful transition into film. He was more well-known as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter, than as Tony Manero. He had also played a part in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). Such a transition from television to film was unusual in 1977.

Philip Terzian expressed his shock about Travolta’s success at the time: “John Travolta is a fable for our times. There used to be a kind of informal process in show business whereby an actor started out in vaudeville or on the Broadway stage, moved to Hollywood, and ended his days peacefully as a television judge or a huckster for instant coffee or aspirin. Now it is all backwards. Travolta comes to us from a television situation comedy and, having parlayed the challenge of a disco dancer into recognition, will sooner or later be playing King Lear.”

Terzian’s words sound keenly prophetic from today’s vantage point. The litany of television performers who followed Travolta from the tube onto the silver screen in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s included Bill Murray, James Garner, Eddie Murphy, Dan Ackroyd, Rick Moranis, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, Robin Williams, Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, Sonny Bono, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Bruce Willis, Michael Keaton, Steve Martin, Alan Alda, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Cher, and many others. Perhaps John Travolta never turned out to be the Brando that many people originally thought he would be (the Bee Gees actually had all the memorable lines in Saturday Night Fever), but he was able to entirely transcend his television status thanks to Saturday Night Fever and his subsequent performance in 1978’s musical Grease.