It’s not my favorite film of all-time.
It’s not even in my top 5 As of now though, it’s in my top five. Why? Because of all the movies I’ve seen throughout my life, Saturday Night Fever is easily the one film I think about the most long after I finish watching it. Everything about the film seemed tailor-made to “speak to me” from its gritty coming-of-age themes to how relatable John Travolta’s character is to the Bee Gees soundtrack. Yeah, I’m one of those old-school losers who can groove to disco. What of it?
When we’re first introduced to Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, we learn what kind of character he is through his actions alone whilst the song “Staying Alive” plays in the background. The way he walks indicates that dancing is his passion, and the way he tries to harass a random pretty woman on the street indicates that he’s a bit of a chauvinistic asshole. When he finally does start talking with people, we build on that chauvinistic asshole personality in order to discover that he’s like every other teenager: someone who always lives in the present with no thought for the future. Aside from being played by John Travolta, he’s not much different from any of the protagonists in a Seo Kouji manga.
Indeed, Tony is a guy who only has one real passion: dancing. He doesn’t want to face reality because, well, it’s a shithole. His family is emotionally abusive/disturbed, his friends are assholes, and his brother is doing far better than him as a priest. So when we get to those scenes, there’s a bit of a gloomy atmosphere and there’s bound to be at least one moment where Tony lashes out at something. When we get to the dance club?
Tony’s escape from reality also functions as the audience’s escape, as well as the moment where Tony really defines himself. Because let’s face it, do we really want to follow some random asshole and his shitty life for the entire movie length? There’s plenty of people suffering from Tony’s problems in reality. Something I think most hack coming-of-age writers don’t realize that characters need to be fun and that relatability doesn’t necessarily translate to that. They need to have their own life. Their own wants and needs. Their own unique way of providing excitement, even during the darkest times. And when Tony is dancing to “You Should Be Dancing” or whatever else the Bee Gees made, he’s not only giving us something cool to see, he’s characterized in a way that makes him even more interesting to the viewer.
Once Tony is properly characterized, the next question that forms is “where are we supposed to take him?”. As with most male stories of this type, Tony’s self-reflective journey is jump-started by a free-spirited female who represents what Tony wants. And not just any female. An older woman named Stephanie who can really bring it on the dance floor, which is pretty much what attracts Tony to her. After the two agree to be dance partners, that’s when the subplots start to come in. One of Tony’s friends got his (unseen) girlfriend pregnant and he wants to get out of marrying her. Tony’s brother leaves the priesthood and instantly becomes the black sheep of the family. Annette, a girl who has a crush on Tony, gets treated like dirt by him and retaliates in a way that costs her dearly. It’s like the main story is your Steam profile and these other problems are the crappy games you buy off of it.
What I like about these subplots is that whilst Tony is never directly involved with any of these characters’ problems and we never really see them resolved in a satisfactory way, that doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, they’re just flavoring used to highlight two things: Tony’s shitty lifestyle and the late 70s disco era. This movie doesn’t have answers to these issues because it’s not supposed to (they’re called ‘sub’plots for a reason). It doesn’t overreach at the expense of its true accomplishments like a shitty VN adaptation, and even when the characters aren’t dancing, the disco stuff is always there the same way the action continues to exist in Die Hard even when Bruce Willis is just spouting one-liners whilst stuck in a ventilation shaft.
Moreover, they’re integrated into the main plot perfectly, containing all the actual substance that truly makes Saturday Night Fever special whilst the story of Tony winning a dance competition with his new friend remains the skeleton that must always exist strongly throughout, yet can’t really provide meat on its own. The finale IMO is where this shines the most. Without giving too much away, the compounding problems regarding his friends and family cause Tony to commit terrible actions that worsen his lifestyle even more than it already was, destroying the goals he tried to set out for himself, and ensuring that there was no turning back. It’s up there with Kaoru’s breakdown in Kids on the Slope as one of my favorite dramatic moments in fiction because it’s self-destruction where even though outside circumstances are to blame, the protagonist is the one who pulled the trigger at the end of the day and all he can do is face the consequences of his actions. See that Seo Kouji? That’s how you create relatable drama out of asshole characters.
But there is hope. You can’t get back what you lost. But you can rebuild something new in its place and compromise whilst doing so. And that’s why the final scene when Tony rides the subway for the entire night before meeting Stephanie works so well. It doesn’t matter that the movie ends at the plans for the future and not at the results. It doesn’t matter if at the end of the day, Tony is “just friends” with a girl rather than having an actual girlfriend. If anything, that’s what makes the finale so much better. And let’s be honest, Tony is lucky to even have that. Remember how the main dude in 5 Cm Per Second ended up? Yeah…
– Plus, ending the film with the Bee Gee’s “How Deep Is Your Love” song? Nice.
– Also, night fever night fever.