There’s no other John Travolta film as iconic and discussed as Saturday Night Fever. Carrie might have been the breakthrough role, Grease an effervescent and enduring cultural moment, and Pulp Fiction a brilliant reinvention of a legendary star, but Travolta’s performance as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever has entered our cultural language as few films before or since. Still constantly imitated and referenced 35 years later, it’s clearly here to stay. And yet, Saturday Night Fever may not be the film you think it is – quite literally.
As initially released in December 1977, the film offered a frank and sometimes quite dark look at life for a group of rough and rowdy Brooklyn friends on the brink of adulthood at the height of the disco era. A sophisticated film boasting a rising star in John Travolta and an electrifying soundtrack featuring The Bee Gees and other top acts of a genre that was in the process of transforming the record industry, the studio had every reason to expect a hit.
They did. But the film’s receipts surpassed expectations, and the sales of its soundtrack reached stratospheric levels: it spent 24 weeks atop the Billboard charts in 1978, and its 15 million sales shattered all records for a soundtrack LP (not surpassed until Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard some 15 years later). To reach an even wider audience, and to deliver a film more appropriate for young audiences hooked on the film’s many hits, a PG version was created and re-released to theaters. This PG version, for a long period, became the dominant version available—not only in theaters, but for years on television and multiple home-video formats.
If you didn’t watch the film early in its theatrical run, or recently on disc, there’s every chance you’ve never seen the film as originally intended. So what exactly are you missing? At first glance, the difference between the two versions might not seem substantial. The R-rated version, after all, ran 118 minutes, and the PG-Rated a reasonably close 112. But on closer examination, the PG-rated version did not just clip a crucial 6 minutes (including some physical and sexual violence that are not pleasant to watch, but add greatly to the complexity of the film), but also substituted many “cleaner” alternate takes that had been prepared with its eventual television release in mind.
The differences, it turns out, are night and day: simply put, there’s a version of Saturday Night Fever for adults, and one for younger audiences. And if you haven’t seen the more mature version, you need to. In both versions, the centerpiece of this film remains Travolta. Common to both is his ecstatic dancing, still jaw-dropping to this day, and his late-teen swagger, a mixture of youthful innocence and budding bravado that says as much with a shy grin or a hard stare as it does with a swivel or thrust on the dance floor.
But unique to the R-rated version are some complexities of Tony Manero’s character, and the journey he takes. His group of friends, fused together by neighborhood pride and their shared loves of girls, dance, and crass humor, is a rugged one. But in the R-rated version, we see just how ugly the extremes of these characters are: just how low the depths of racism, homophobia, and, especially, sexism are in this group. And even more clearly, we see the struggle that Tony Manero goes through, slowly realizing that all is not well in the only world he’s known, and that the behavior and attitudes of his friends disgust him, even as a world outside his blue-collar, working-for-the-weekend life is hard to envision. Disco, in its purest form, was not a music made for people of one gender, one sexual orientation, or one skin color—indeed, perhaps more than any other, it was created to bring all people together in commune on the dance floor—but in his group, only Tony gets that. Dance becomes for him not only an ecstatic release in the moment, but, in meaningful ways, a path of lasting escape from a group of people and values that he no longer holds.
In bringing this moral struggle to the screen, Travolta gives us a performance that’s filled with poignancy. The characters surrounding Tony Manero are accustomed to resolving conflict with shouted words and raised fists, and Saturday Night Fever delivers many such moments. But even more gripping are those moments when Travolta communicates a moment of dissent, and/or of emotional growth, with a saddened eye or a slight raise in voice.
It’s a truly great performance in a film that we’ve remembered in shorthand, concentrating on its signature dance-floor sequences and sounds. But the almost superhuman dance routines that have entered our cultural memory are only the tip of the iceberg, and become all the more incredible in the context of the film’s dark corners and subtle shadings. As an added bonus, of all the great films shot on location in New York in the 1970s, it’s hard to think of another that serves us so many generous helpings of Brooklyn.
To be sure, Saturday Night Fever is a film often filled with great joy, but to get to know it today is to see a film counterbalanced by passages a few steps closer in tone to, say, Mean Streets, than you might think possible. We here at the festival heartily recommend rediscovering Saturday Night Fever in its R-rated version—if possible, in its blu-ray edition, boasting superbly remastered image and sound that highlight the format’s superiority.
– Eric Hatch, Programming Director