The term “ground zero” describes a point where an explosion occurs. Concerning the explosion of the disco era, few would argue that the catalyst was the 1977 blockbuster film, Saturday Night Fever. Cross-marketed with a musical soundtrack that is still considered one of the most successful of all-time, the film managed to send a significant portion of the population to the nearest dance floor, to boogie the night away just like the film’s character, Tony Manero. It also marked the film debut of America’s favorite sweathog, John Travolta, whose slick dance moves were soon imitated in every disco in America. For better or worse, the disco era had arrived.
Tony Manero (Travolta) is a working-class NYC youth whose career is going nowhere fast. But amongst his gang of buddies, Joey, Double J and Bobby C, and the other frequenters of a local Brooklyn nightclub, Tony is the reigning king of the dancers, a master of fancy footwork in his fashionable white suit and heeled boots. It’s his sanctuary from his conservative family and perhaps the only thing keeping him alive in the dead end world world he lives in – filled with rival gangs and stupid stunts, such as treating the local bridges as a circus tightrope, all while under the influence of considerable amounts of alcohol.
With a big dance contest approaching, Tony is trying to find the perfect partner to accompany him. First he turns to a neighborhood friend named Annette, who is also in love with him. But when he gets wind of a better dancer named Stephanie, he dumps Annette for the much more upscale and talented Stephanie. When the big day arrives, the pair unanimously win the contest, but it doesn’t sit well with Tony, who is fully aware that they were outdanced by another couple. He promptly hands them the prize and trophy, realizing that his victory was more a result of favoritism than actual ability. Lashing out at his friends for their blind loyalty, he then proceeds to take out his anger on Stephanie, sexually assaulting her while his friends have their way with a very intoxicated Annette. Finally, they all head to the infamous bridge and this time, the results are tragic, forcing Tony to re-examine his life and his future.
The sexual violence, drug use and crude language of Saturday Night Fever earned it a well-deserved “R” rating, but as the film proved to be enormously popular, the filmmakers made a very smart decision to release a toned-down PG version the following year. Between the two versions, the film managed to rake in $237 million at the box office. But that success practically pales in comparison to the film’s soundtrack album. Featuring songs primarily from The Bee Gees, including such classics as “Stayin’ Alive,” Night Fever” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” this definitive collection of disco standards would eventually go platinum fifteen times over. It won a Grammy for Album of the Year after going all the way to #1 on the charts. A total of seven singles from the album also made it to the #1 position.
Never before had a single film and its accompanying soundtrack had such a profound impact on the course of musical history. Disco became the force to be reckoned with, ushering in years of thumping music and filling dance floors to capacity as the world mocked the moves of Tony Manero, as well as his flashy fashions. But as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and with the arrival of the 80s, the phenomenon finally started to fade. Even a successful sequel in 1983, Staying Alive, couldn’t resuscitate the disco fever. And, although future generations would occasionally attempt to revive the glory days of disco, its time had mercifully passed. But what an explosion it was, and Saturday Night Fever remains undeniably one of the most culturally influential films ever made.
If you have fond memories of this classic film, or the many songs that provided the soundtrack of a generation, we hope you’ll share all of your Saturday Night Fever memories in our comments section.