Boasting one of the most popular soundtracks ever associated with a major motion picture, “Saturday Night Fever” swept through late 1970s New York, amping up the disco scene and crystallizing the bridge and tunnel longings of a new generation. Equal parts “you should be dancing” entertainment and poignant, coming-of-age drama, the movie turned John Travolta into a big screen heartthrob and the Bee Gees into music royalty.
Set in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, “Saturday Night Fever” tells the timeless story of 19-year-old Tony Manero, a kid we meet for the first time strutting down the street while eating two slices of pizza. Played by a wiry, young John Travolta, Manero works in a hardware store and lives to dance his weekends away at a local disco. An incredible raw talent and black sheep of his religious, working class family, Manero dreams of achieving something more out of life, but can’t quite grasp what or where. A local dance contest and deepening connection with his new dance partner Stephanie, played by the lithesome and lovely Karen Lynn Gorney, gives him simultaneous glimpses of his own possibilities and a deepening awareness of the life he is currently living. Does he get the girl? Does he win the contest? Does he make his way over the Brooklyn Bridge to a better life? The film’s poignant core makes the answers almost trivial when compared to the questions and their deeper meaning, for both Manero and Brooklyn’s entrenched, working-class street culture.
The movie’s soundtrack went platinum, sold more than 50 million copies and featured songs which remain iconic to this day, including, “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love” and the disco-forever anthem, “Night Fever.” Hit after hit saturated radio waves, generating a consistent fan base who couldn’t get enough of the movie or the music, and ushering in a new type of marketing strategy for Hollywood. In addition to the Bee Gees, the soundtrack also included Tavares, The Trammps, Yvonne Elliman and other artists. The entire score was added to the Library of Congress’ prestigious and select National Recording Registry for meeting its criteria of being culturally, historically or aesthetically influential.
Were it not brilliantly conceptualized and executed, “Saturday Night Fever” may have been just another 1970s New York period piece, set against the backdrop of the Verrazano Bridge and punctuated by phenomenal dancing and Travolta’s brilliant white suit. The film, written by Nik Cohn and Norman Wexler and directed by John Badham and Randal Kleiser, tells an age-old story which continues to resonate today. Entwined with the fabric of Bay Ridge’s deeply religious, Italian-American culture, Manero and Stephanie’s characters encapsulate the longings of every generation on the cusp of adulthood and the striver’s mentality so embedded in New York City’s spirit.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.