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Saturday Night Fever

You should be dancin'! 40th Anniversary Screening - The Director's Cut

If you were not around in late 1977, you may not fully appreciate the seismic wave that SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sent through the world.

It was not the movie that invented disco; disco had been around in one form or another since DJs figured out how to extend mixes of danceable songs back in the 1960s, and it had boogied into the mainstream in the early '70s, with such hard-hitting hits as The O'Jays' "Love Train," TSOP's  "The Sound of Philadelphia," Gloria Gaynor's "Never Can Say Goodbye," and Van McCoy's "The Hustle."

 

 

But SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER suddenly awakened America to the trappings of disco culture. Yes, there was the music, but there were also the dances, the hypnotic light shows, the glamour, the clothes and, in the era before AIDS, casual sex, steamy one-night-stands, cocaine and cocktails... you get the picture. Suddenly, even the suburbanites who had never dreamed of going clubbing were clustered by the velvet rope at their neighborhood disco, hoping they would be judged hip enough to get in.

The phenomenon began with a New York magazine story by Nik Kohn called "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," published in June 1976. The piece explored the life of an 18-year-old subject identified only as "Vincent," identified as "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge" and the master of the dance floor. "Everybody knew him," Kohn wrote. "When Saturday night came round and he walked into 2001 Odyssey, all the other Faces automatically fell back before him, cleared a space for him to float in, right at the very center of the dance floor."

The profile caught the attention of producer/mogul Robert Stigwood, who paid Kohn $90,000 for the rights to his material (no word on whether or not Stigwood got a refund a few years later when Kohn finally confessed his "journalism" was mostly hogwash and fantasy). A screenplay was commissioned that would suit Stigwood's client, John Travolta, then best known for his stint on TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter" and for causing millions of teens around the world to swoon in the TV-movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble."

Norman Wexler (SERPICO) crafted the script -- simply titled SATURDAY NIGHT -- which turned "Vincent" into Tony Manero, a Bay Ridge teen who works at a paint store and lives for Saturday nights, when he and his friends can take over 2001 Odyssey, the local disco. Eventually, Tony crosses paths with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a Brooklyn-born secretary who has made the leap across the bridge to Manhattan. Stephanie becomes Tony's dance partner for a competition, as well as giving him his first clear idea of what can happen when you transcend the world in which you've grown up.

The project was never originally intended to be more than a modest vehicle for Travolta. But before it opened across America in time for Christmas, SATURDAY NIGHT had become SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, The Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," the first single from the soundtrack, had rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and the hype was inescapable. It was a pop-culture perfect storm.

Yet this would become one of the first times that a movie -- huge as it was at the box office -- stood in the shadow of its soundtrack. Blame it on The Bee Gees, an Australian trio slowly making a comeback after enjoying great success a few years earlier and then falling out of fashion shortly afterward. Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb were working on material for a new album and their songs caught Stigwood's ear: Although they seem to have been custom-crafted for the movie, "Stayin' Alive," "How Deep Is Your Love," "More Than a Woman" and "If I Can't Have You" were actually finished even before the group saw a rough draft of the screenplay.

The album spent six months at No. 1 on the album chart, selling more than 15 million copies in the U.S. It would remain the top soundtrack of all time until THE BODYGUARD out-sold it almost 15 years later.

As for the movie, it became both a massive box office success and an Oscar nominee (Travolta was up for best actor, but lost to Richard Dreyfuss in THE GOODBYE GIRL). Travolta was no longer regarded as a TV personality -- he had been anointed as a top-shelf movie star, a verdict that would be confirmed six months later when GREASE opened. As for Gorney, things did not work out so excitingly: "I think that what happened is that I was so vulnerable and scared, whatever people projected on me, I became," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. "People thought I was that person in the movie, and I became that -- instead of someone who was stable and whole and had some sense of herself."

A bit of trivia: Since so many kids wanted to see SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER but could not buy a ticket because of the justly deserved R rating, Paramount took the unusual step of issuing a PG-rated recut of the movie that softened the profuse profanities and cleaned up the gritty sex scenes, as well as including a few previously unseen sequences. The move worked, and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER found a very receptive new audience of trend-crazy teens. (James Sanford)

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