Disco is dead, but Saturday Night Fever is stayin’ alive. Released across America on Dec. 16, 1977, the story of a working-class teen who dances his way out of a dead-end life in working-class Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was an immediate sensation. The film displaced Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind to top the box office and remained there for two more months, emerging as the fifth biggest film of the year. Its soundtrack was also No. 1, with a bullet — a full six months atop the charts, only falling off in March 1980, by which time it had sold 16 million records and become the only disco disc to win the Best Album Grammy.
Its director, John Badham, called its success “lightning in a bottle,” recently telling Forbes that the R-rated movie’s profanity and political incorrectness made its distributor, Paramount Pictures, nervous, and that only the efforts of producer Robert Stigwood prevented cuts. In retrospect, the worries were overblown. Like the previous year’s Rocky, it was a gritty “underdog” tale, with a wish fulfillment element that separated it from the dark urban melodramas of the period, like Taxi Driver (1976). And, as Rocky gave audiences Sylvester Stallone, it birthed a major star in 23-year-old John Travolta, who successfully graduated from the TV high school of Welcome Back, Kotter. “The mood, the beat, and the trance rhythm are so purely entertaining, and Travolta is such an original presence, that a viewer spins past the crudeness in the script,” New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael observed.
The crudeness was baked in, lifted from English rock critic Nik Cohn’s 1976 cover story for New York magazine, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” Its Vincent, one of the tough Italian-American youths who lived to dance at the 2001 Odyssey disco, was the model for Travolta’s Tony Manero. While the Englewood, New Jersey-born Travolta saw the potential in the role, he wasn’t much of a dancer, so Emmy-winning choreographer Lester Wilson and Deney Terio, the future host of TV’s Dance Fever, shaped and molded the moves he would incarnate. (Ultimately, Travolta prevailed upon Stigwood to have his immortal “Stayin’ Alive” walk, in the opening scene, re-edited to show his entire frame and not the close-ups Badham deemed appropriate.)
Filming in Bay Ridge was colorful, with Travolta’s TV fame obliging him to go incognito as much as possible to avoid screaming female fans and a local mobster, “Black Stan,” shaking down the production for $7,000 when it needed to light the bowling alley across from 2001 Odyssey. The down-at-heel venue was itself transformed, with a $15,000 lighted dance floor whose heat and smoke required Travolta to take periodic hits of oxygen. Bill Ward, the film’s gaffer, recalled for Vanity Fair the club owner’s reaction: “Holy shit, you guys made my place look great!”
A white suit that costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein found at a Bay Ridge boutique, along with the pointy platform shoes and bling, made Tony look great. The Bee Gees made Saturday Night Fever sound great. But despite career hardships and personal turmoil the Gibb brothers weren’t into disco, and it looked as if Tony might be dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs. Recognizing that they needed a new direction, they took the job and breathed new life into a fad that itself had begun to fade. The hits kept coming: “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love,” “Night Fever” and “If I Can’t Have You” gave the movie its soul, and topped the singles charts.
Travolta received his first Oscar nomination for Saturday Night Fever. When the Stigwood-produced Grease proved an even bigger smash just a few months later, Paramount opportunistically recut Saturday Night Fever by ten minutes for a PG version, which came and went. The disaster movie spoof Airplane! skewered Saturday Night Fever in 1980, but it’s not quite as devastating as Staying Alive (1983), in which Tony becomes a Broadway star in one of the campier stage musicals ever dreamed up for a movie, “Satan’s Alley.” Saturday Night Fever was originally assigned to Rocky director John G. Avildsen, and directing Travolta in the sequel was Stallone — one of Tony’s idols, whom Manero does a double take over when he spots him on a Manhattan street in a cameo. Staying Alive was a modest hit, but one that stained the white suit.
Film critic and Saturday Night Fever superfan Gene Siskel owned the actual white suit, buying it for $2,000 in 1979 and selling it at auction for $145,000 in 1995. It was his favorite movie (a longer “director’s cut” was issued on home video this year) and Siskel wasn’t alone in his worship. Julia Ashirova, who owns the one-family Bay Ridge house the Maneros called home in the movie, bought it in 2005, with a boyfriend who loved the film. (She’s selling it for $2.5 million.) Some “well heeled” admirer purchased the dance floor, which stayed at 2001 Odyssey until it closed in 1995, for $1 million at auction this summer.
For the darkly satiric side of this fandom, check out the Chilean film Tony Manero (2008), where a deranged obsessive with all the moves murders his way onto a TV show spotlighting celebrity imitators — but don’t confuse that guy with the benign Gianluca Mech. “The Richard Simmons of Italy,” Mech will this Wednesday return 2001 Odyssey, now the Bamboo Garden Chinese restaurant, to its disco roots in a $200,000 extravaganza. DJ Monti Rock, featured in the film, will be there, and so will pizzas from Lenny’s, featured in the opening scene. Dress the part and you can come, too. “I want to share this with everyone,” Mech, who’s had the fever since he saw the movie at age eight, told the New York Post. “Tony Manero was a person who makes his own dreams come true. He’s not just a character — Tony Manero is me.”