by Peter Steven
Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 13-16
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER became one of the most popular films of the 1970s. It was seen by young people all over the world encouraging them to adopt its music, its lifestyle, and its ideology.
On the one hand, I see it as the epitome of mass marketing — an exploitation of a current dance craze and two TV stars.  At the same time, I liked the music and dancing very much and suspect they contribute greatly to the film's popularity. The music oozes from what must be the ultimate pop group of all time. Pop in this case shouldn't be simply equated with popular but with the production of musical commodities. The Bee Gees are likeable, intelligent, and ultimately flexible in terms of current fads — their style subservient to modern marketing. It's no wonder that at various times in the movie I get the feeling of being enmeshed in an extended Pepsi commercial.
In writing this essay I've had a difficult time keeping on top of the film. As with most Hollywood products of the 70s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is a masterpiece of ambiguity and a skillfully constructed commodity which has been able to use its two drawing cards, Travolta and the Bee Gees, to good advantage.
The film seems easily capable of prompting several levels of response in its audiences. These ambiguities, which are built right into the film, and the variations of audience response, which would normally occur in most films, are heightened here because the film employs very recent, topical elements, in particular the culture of a working-class disco and also an extension of profanity and violence only recently acceptable in movies. In addition, a new kind of androgyny seems to shape the male hero — an attempt by the filmmakers to give Tony the likeness, sharp dressing, and sensitivity of a woman. Yet, this occurs at the expense of the women who often get harsh or comic treatment.
An ambiguity exists also in the treatment of the main woman character's ambitions, which at times encourages the audience to respect and understand her situation. But, it would certainly be impossible to defend SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER as admirable entertainment or as a picture of working-class life. Most women I have talked to liked some parts of the film but were angered at the casual violence, particularly the two rape scenes.
I wish to demonstrate how this film combines many old conventions of Hollywood, notions of success, relations between women and men, the forms of the musical genre, yet at the same time introduces and attempts to cope with powerful content from working-class life in the 70s, including class, racial, and sexual conflicts and violence.
I begin by discussing how the filmmakers have used the Hollywood musical genre as a way of treating the phenomenon of disco and how the audience is lured into the narrative world by identifying the Bee Gees' songs with the Travolta/ Tony Manero character.
I then go on to show how the characteristic features of the musical genre break down, paralleling the narrative's increasing interest in the forces in and around Tony which can't be repressed by dance. Whether the filmmakers were conscious of this or not, I believe that the film touches on features of working-class life that have seldom appeared in Hollywood films. I argue that at certain points in the film there is an attempt to show the stupidity and dead end of racial violence as well as an attempt to see the viewpoint of a young working woman. However, the film really only touches these issues and often retreats back into racist and sexist treatment of the situation.
In the final section of the essay I argue that the reasons for the film's popularity do not rest solely on its successful marketing of Travolta and the Bee Bees. Its popularity was also due to what it said to a working-class audience about success and the legitimacy of aspirations for millions of young working people.
1. THE MUSICAL GENRE
Like dozens of past Hollywood musicals, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER presents everyday life as banal — but a life which can be gloriously transcended in a euphoria of song and dance. Early in the film it is clear that Tony thinks of his dancing at the disco in the manner of the classical musicals. When dancing he moves into a special place, once-removed from the everyday world. The type of dance club shown in the film differs from a normal bar or teen hangout. The raised floor, the special clothes, the lights all contribute to a rather fantastic context in which extremely stylized and difficult dancing takes place. The twist and the boogaloo no longer suffice; disco dancing calls for a much higher degree of competence. For Tony, if not for the others, the specialized dancing and atmosphere push aside the realities of the normal world. Though disco dancing seems mechanically stylized, it's obvious when dancing in couples that the caressing and pointing gestures are still explicitly sexual. These socialized/sexual gestures represent the major narrative progression in the film — the continual intrusion of the outside world, even into the style of the dancing, something which Tony has tried to escape from. "It's just dancing, he says repeatedly.
A key aspect of the movie musical is the manner in which the musical numbers are linked with the narrative. Aficionados believe that the musical film succeeds when the numbers are able to either comment on or heighten some aspect of the narrative, the themes, or the characterizations. Singing and/or dancing occupy a special place, serve some special function in the films. The musical segments become the moment when a number of themes, emotions, and conflicts can be simultaneously communicated to the audience. This is a kind of communication not always possible in the normal flow of the narrative, dialogue, or mise-en-scène. The audience often experiences the musical segments metaphorically. In SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, the numbers and the narrative work well together — building up tension in the narrative, releasing it jubilantly in the numbers.
Although part of the musical genre, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER admirably works the many conventions of realism. It depicts a single fictional world, structured in order to give the illusion of a plausible time and space. The framing and composition do not wander far from the established codes of filmmaking in the 70s. For example, the camera devoutly follows the characters, not only in the narrative but even in many of the dance sequences.
In terms of the relation between the numbers and the narrative, the film resides wholly within a realist depiction of space and time. By this I mean that the singing and dancing are at all times motivated by natural locations and plausible characters. The classic example of such realist musicals is the backstage, putting-on-a-show variety of the early 30s wherein the performing was only carried out by show business people who had a valid reason for this type of behavior. Other types of musicals establish different relations between the numbers and the narrative. The Kelly-Donen MGN cycle of the late 40s and early 50s, for example, highlights singing and dancing in the street by ordinary people, which is, to a great degree, pretty unrealistic. (Travolta's following film GREASE is in this tradition.) What is ironic is that a film like Kelly-Donen's ON THE TOWN works because its implausible musical numbers take place against the real location background of New York, abandoning many of the staging and theatrical conventions of earlier musicals.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is not wholly within the backstage realism tradition or the singing-in-the-street tradition. It combines elements from both. As in the backstage musical, the disco floor sits apart from the normal milieu of the streets or the rest of the bar. The depiction of this space is precisely worked out in the editing by eye-line match and point-of-view to situate the main characters on the center stage. In each number, Travolta gradually takes over and in a number of scenes becomes the only person on the floor. But at the same time Travolta's performances are not those of a professional but simply of an ordinary character out for a good time on Saturday night in Brooklyn. Like the beaming Gene Kelly of the 1950s, Travolta seems able to make the most of the city.
But eventually comparison with the older traditions or the characters played by Kelly don't get us very far. Where Kelly's dancing and singing always seemed a true and valid expression of his best feelings and emotions, Travolta appears to be using the disco to ward off the outside world and using the dance to ward off internal desires and emotions. What is odd about this musical is that as the film progresses the music and dance decline in importance, the narrative impinges, and the disco scene fades. Two examples illustrate this progression.
The best-selling single, "Stayin' Alive," which at the time of the film's release epitomized white disco, brackets the first three-quarters of the narrative, that part of the action which takes place in Brooklyn. The other hit song from the film is the lush and romantic "How Deep Is Your Love," which wells up only when the characters are in Manhattan. Thus the film, which seems from the advertising to glorify disco, in the end rejects it: Brooklyn — Disco — Dead End.
The film opens with a long build-up of scenes in preparation for Saturday night at the disco. These scenes function to sketch in Tony's character and situation and to set the mood and rhythm for what follows. Most noticeable at this point is the manner in which the music dominates the editing. In both the lyrics and the pacing of the songs "Stayin' Alive" and "Night Fever," a rhythm develops in which the visuals function as illustration. This is important for the marketing strategy of the film as a pop product since it can be safely assumed that much of the audience comes to hear the big hits and to see how they relate to Travolta. The movie immediately fulfills those desires to see and hear the familiar. The songs had a large following even before people saw the film; they went to the film to see their meaning and context.
Furthermore, it is appropriate that the image and sound fit closely at this point since the main thing in Tony's mind (and by identification in the audience's) is the disco. A number of flash-forwards to dancing underline this while Tony gets ready for the disco. But after the long build-up and the first depiction of the Saturday night disco scene, the music begins to recede in importance, at least in terms of domination over the editing. In the final third of the film the narrative action gains control and comes to dominate and suggest mise-en-scène and sound track.
Of prime importance in the latter part of the film is the relationship between Tony and Stephanie and the resolution of the various subplots with minor characters. The diminishing importance of the music is paralleled thematically in that Tony gives up dancing after he realizes that the contest he has won was rigged — favoring the Italians over the blacks and Puerto Ricans.
Comparison with another recent musical, CABARET (1972), is fruitful. In one respect the two films are similar in that the fantasy world, which beats a retreat from the hostile reality on the outside, becomes, in the end, invaded and overwhelmed by that reality. The last sequence of CABARET reveals, cynically, that the Berlin nightclub is now packed with Nazis. But though SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER also pits a fantasy retreat against an invading hostile reality, this invasion of reality fosters a positive development since it becomes the source of Tony's maturation. The fantasy world in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is shown to be inadequate, valuable only as a temporary respite from the dilemmas of class, race, and sex.
2. THE NARRATIVE TAKES CONTROL
The main ploys of the narrative and the ways in which the audience experiences the unfolding of the story occur in a conventional manner. The filmmakers construct for us an attractive single hero, shown in a number of exciting situations in which he emerges from the crowd, who eventually achieves a degree of maturity. The young male hero inhabits a hostile world, a place to be tested; he can expect no help from adults.
The disco is a fantasy world, an escape. As Tony says to Stephanie on the occasion of their first awkward, comic date for coffee, "Being at the disco is not having to be a bastard, it's just dancing." For the other characters, and particularly the women, the disco may be a special place but it's clearly not an escape. Either because they cannot or they do not wish to, the others are not as intent as Tony on mastering the techniques of these difficult dances. They realize that the disco is not much different from their daily milieu, in which ethnic background, class, and sex predominate.
The narrative explicitly distinguishes aggressors from victims, survivors from losers. On their last trip to the Verranzano Narrows Bridge the minor characters struggle against and defeat each other. It is clear from very early in the film that Bobby and Annette will have an extremely difficult time coping with the situations around them. Bobby is shown in a number of scenes to be pessimistic about his future chances in life whereas the other males seem resigned to their lot, having internalized their social situation to the extent where it no longer affects their tough guy exteriors (in fact, of course, it shapes those exteriors). Bobby is not tough enough either to fight or to make decisions on his own. He is trapped by ignorance and fear about the implications of his lover's pregnancy. He becomes reckless for attention and falls to his death.
The character of Annette is set up in a sexist context in which she can't win. That context of male adolescence views her as far too eager to be accepted by the males, who wish above all to appear cool. The filmmakers set her off against the somewhat composed and sophisticated appeal of Stephanie, who appears strong enough to be able to make it on her own outside of Brooklyn.
At the beginning of the film, Tony can sublimate his energy (which is partly fed by frustration, that is, repression) via the fantasy world of the disco. By the end of the film, Tony has reached a point, partially consciously, where he can no longer sublimate his sexual energy nor his frustrations. He no longer finds it possible to ignore the pressures of the outside world impinging on the dance floor.
So what are these realities which insist on intruding? Most obvious and for the movies most clichéd are the numerous conflicts and dilemmas of adolescence — the worries about the future. In SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER these problems emerge as the specifics of class, sex, and ethnicity.
The film accurately reflects a real situation within the working class. The family structure has a rather strong hold over its members, but as a whole they are hard pressed to deal with constant pressures of urban life. The father is a construction worker who has been unemployed for the last six months. Tony works for the owner of a small hardware store. It is probably not a difficult job (Tony, in fact, seems to enjoy being a salesperson), but he realizes that there's an unexciting future should he manage to stay on. The film depicts Tony's prospects on a purely visual level by linking cutaways of the older employees with the voice of the boss lecturing Tony about his future.
No one in the family is shown to have any social or class connections based on a work situation. Tony's mother has until now stayed at home raising the children, but, as she mentions rather warily for fear of offending the husband, she may also soon be job hunting. Although the family lives in a working-class neighborhood and is given many of the cultural characteristics of working people — speech, dress, attitudes, etc. — we see nothing of the broader working-class community or work groups. Obviously, there is some truth to a depiction like this. As is becoming more and more evident in this worsening recession, unemployment works to undercut the power of the working class as a whole; the physical and psychological toll on the unemployed workers is disastrous. But it is part of the ideology of this film to leap from a depiction of the hardships of working-class life to a depiction of all workers' lives as barren, isolated, and something to escape from.
The other reality, not shown in this film nor captured in any mainstream cinema of the 1970s, is the continuing strength and skill of the organized working class. While it is true, as Harry Braverman argues, that there has been a steady decline in the skills required to perform working-class jobs and a corresponding transfer of technical and scientific knowledge from the working class to management and professionals, it remains true that the organized work force, particularly in the industrial and essential service sectors, is a constant force to be reckoned with in the capitalist state.  The trade union movement still provides one of the major bases on which opposition to capitalism will grow. The recent coal strike in the U.S. provides an example of working-class realities seldom seen in fiction films. Though the economy and the technology required to maintain capitalism grow more and more sophisticated and harder to analyze after each crisis, it is still apparent just how dependent the economy is on such a primary process as the hacking out of minerals from the earth in the demanding and dangerous occupation of mining. I suspect we will wait a long time before Hollywood is capable of bringing that kind of a subject, treated from a working-class perspective, to the screen.
So, those who see the film as a reflection of working-class life under advanced capitalism see only one side of the coin, admittedly a real and desperate situation for millions of people in the decaying cities but inaccurate as a generalization of the development of class forces. Therefore, in order to deal with the film on its own terms, it becomes necessary to leave aside a complete picture of working-class life and concentrate on this partial reality depicted in the film. To do this requires concentration on an ideological aspect of class relations — the myth of upward mobility and success.
Chuck Kleinhans has set out a model for looking at working-class heroes in popular films, based on what he perceives as two kinds of success myths in the United States.  The older form of the myth he calls the naive version, whereby
On the other hand, there is the
Kleinhans believes that the naive myth is probably staging a comeback as Hollywood attempts to cash in on a young working-class audience not very eager to see its hopes for the future debunked. The Vietnam experience in the U.S. probably needs to be forgotten emotionally for those who were involved and countered ideologically for those who make it their business to legitimize the operations of capitalism.
How does the film work these two success myths? The ending of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER gives the impression that the hero has succeeded in rising above his peers, succeeded in reaching maturity by moving to a more dynamic milieu, succeeded in wooing the woman he has desired. Therefore, one aspect of the dominant ideological work being performed here, though more easily seen in a cruder film like ROCKY, is a flaunting of the old naive success story. But at the same time, the film is guarded as to the extent of Tony's success, in its emphasis (in the dialogue) on his poor education, his naiveté about what Manhattan is really like, and what it will require to get ahead in Manhattan without a skill. Thus the emphasis rests on the positive, but circumscribed within a very realistic and confining context. The film presents limited horizons.
If the filmmakers wished to emphasize the sour grapes myth, it would not have been hard and Hollywood has many clichéd ways to undercut the aspirations of people like these young Italians from Brooklyn. As Bill Nichols has argued, acceptance of one's place rather than striving to move up has probably been the predominant ideology in U.S. films.  For the Stephanie character in particular, whose primary ambition is to survive in a clerical job in Manhattan and to take two college courses, the film is remarkably restrained, as Hollywood films go, in accepting these aspirations as legitimate. How easy it would have been to ridicule her attempts to cultivate and broaden her tastes and activities. How hypocritical if the film were to "say" don't go to Manhattan since we all know that Manhattan is as bad as Brooklyn. It's surely a new tack in U.S. mythology when Manhattan is dusted off at the end of a film as a potential place of salvation.
In this context I believe that it is important to see why Brooklyn provides the setting for the action. If we accept the fact that the Horatio Alger myth operates here to some extent, I would suggest that Manhattan is now too clichéd a birthplace for the hero to ascend from. The myth works best when the boy (always a boy, of course) comes from an unusual place. Alger's character, Ragged Dick, was a Midwest farmboy who made it; for years in the Hollywood mythology the rise started from a grimy street in Manhattan. But these are certified places of obscurity now, not odd enough to feed the spring of mythical success stories.
4. ETHNICITY AND SEX
Two points need to be made about the film's attitude toward male chauvinism. First, the film seems determined to extend the boundaries of profanity acceptable to 70s censors. Its use of sexual and racial epithets is certainly what many people today would recognize as realistic in the everyday world. Yet, as the extensive criticism of artistic naturalism and direct cinema have shown, merely reproducing such attitudes and language on the screen can seem equivalent to legitimizing them. Second, it may be that what started as a sincere attempt on the part of the filmmakers to criticize sexism and racism became undercut by the fact that the characters are young and ethnic. WASPs in the audience, regardless of some levels of identification with the characters, may be left with the comforting feeling that such violent and unsavory behavior is, after all, largely confined to ethnics and the immature.
What we really need now are popular films which can expose such chauvinism and racism among white, middle-aged bourgeois characters played not by another Archie Bunker but by a Robert Redford, Chevy Chase, or Charlton Heston.
Yet, I find something new (I hesitate to say progressive) in the film. At times, the film seems to stand back from the blatant sexism and mindless racial violence of the characters. One set of sequences works toward this end and may even be successful. In what he calls true Italian style, Tony and his buddies set out to avenge the beating of one of their friends. They attack a Puerto Rican club in an adjoining neighborhood, nearly get themselves killed, severely smash up their rivals, and next morning find out that they attacked the wrong group. In the hospital scene immediately after they have found out their mistake the camera underlines such stupidity by lingering on their expressions.
There are two sequences of sexual assault in the film. The scene in which Annette is raped in the back seat of the car is carefully composed and edited to set Tony off from his buddies. He seems genuinely saddened and depressed by their behavior. Yet he does nothing whatsoever to stop the rape, his only reaction being to inform Annette later that she had chosen not to be a "nice girl" and therefore should have expected it. The film is not in any way critical of these attitudes though it hypocritically attempts to keep Tony's hero status intact by not showing his active participation in the rape.
In addition, the character of Annette is only very roughly sketched in and usually dips dangerously into sexist clichés, unduly emphasizing her status as victim and her desperation to be accepted as sexually mature (that is, placed by the filmmakers into conventional sexist contexts ("she was asking for trouble"). Here again it's instructive to compare the victim status of the two minor characters. Where we see Bobby's character and predicament as sad and somewhat pathetic, the film encourages us to laugh at Annette for being silly and gauche and in the end depicts her very harshly. In fact, throughout the entire film the audience is encouraged to laugh at the women characters, a prime example being the scene in which Annette presents contraceptives to Tony. Even the heroine doesn't escape this kind of treatment as, for instance, Stephanie's accent and her dialogue about famous people in the restaurant scene.
In an earlier scene of assault, in which Tony tries to rape Stephanie, the attack comes immediately after Tony has pointed out very clearly that everyone he knows is constantly "dumping" their aggressions onto others — usually those closest to them. This scene is also important since it represents the point at which Tony's sexual energies and social frustrations are no longer contained by dance. He promptly forgets his criticism of others and his first outburst after the contest is aggressive and directed at the closest woman, Stephanie. Tony needs two things in order to become mature (sexually and otherwise): a knee in the groin from Stephanie, who will have no part of rape, and the realization that those around him are wasting their lives and committing suicide in one way or another. Bobby's death finally propels Tony out of Brooklyn — his adolescent milieu.
I must conclude that the film vacillates between uncritically copying and fostering such racist and sexist behavior and standing back from it, resisting it.
I have argued that the film's musical structure and narrative/thematic structure reveal similar kinds of tension. In both cases there is a heavy dose of the generic and the conventional. Yet, at the same time, the film is able to incorporate aspects of 1970s reality which need to be dragged out into the light of day.
The film makes for a rather unusual musical in that the fantasy world which depicts a refuge from the everyday is a refuge for some of the characters only — mainly the star of the film. In the end even Tony must conclude that the music and dancing can be of little help in coping with the real world. Reality has already invaded and corrupted the fantasy.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sets up situations in which certain characters have a chance to achieve limited success. There are a number of ways in which this thematic situation presents itself, some of them clichéd, others more unusual.
Like most successful Hollywood films SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER has its cake and eats it too — the film can be interpreted as saying all of these things. Nowhere, of course, does it even toy with the idea that an individual could achieve success by rising with others, in particular rising with fellow members of the working class.
Nevertheless, despite these thematic ambiguities about success, I refuse to believe that the film's popularity has been achieved solely on the drawing power of the pop idols Travolta and the Bee Gees. The filmmakers have said something about the hopes, aspirations, and essential decency of working people. Though it could be called naive that an average young man and woman from Brooklyn achieve success in Manhattan, the film definitely sets that success in a limited context. Though the aspirations of the characters are shown to be limited and definitely naïve, the film does not collapse into condescension or cynicism about those aspirations.
To end polemically seems appropriate. I would argue that although SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER does not offer a complete picture of present-day working-class realities, it does place its characters and its narrative firmly within those realities. The film is directed to a working-class audience whose problems and attitudes toward success differ from what has been the norm in bourgeois Hollywood. Only if you are working class or have a class analysis of this society can you understand these aspects of the film.
1. John Travolta was a regular in WELCOME BACK KOTTER; Karen Gorney was in ALL MY CHILDREN.
2. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).
3. Chuck Kleinhans, "Contemporary Working Class Film Heroes," JUMP CUT, No. 2.
4. Bill Nichols's article entitled "Horatio Alger Goes to Hollywood," Take One, 3, 10-11, makes an interesting comparison to the one by Kleinhans in its rejection of the notion that the Horatio Alger myth has dominated U.S. films. Each author argues that the dominant ideology is inadequate and has perverted basic facts about U.S. life. But whereas Kleinhans says that the ideology in films is overly optimistic about the possibilities of success in the United States, Nichols argues that the ideology in films works in an essentially negative manner — urging people to be satisfied with their social position. Of course, it's certainly possible to see variations on both these ideologies at work in the everyday lives of most working people. The hegemony of capitalist life is quite capable of harnessing both those myths of aspiration, even if they contradict each other.