Jaws is about more than a shark and Saturday Night Fever is about more than dancing. The 70’s disco scene is only the backdrop to this poignant coming-of-age story that confronts issues of social mobility, ambition and family. Sure, the dance sequences are oozing with cool and won’t fail to bring a smile to your face, but they are merely a sideshow to the real heart of this film.
John Travolta was Oscar-nominated for his role as Tony, a late-teens paint store clerk who is stuck in a rut. With seemingly no prospects of escaping his dead-end neighbourhood, his one release are his Saturday nights out dancing. By day he is a nobody, by night he is a king. Tony thinks that maybe winning the upcoming dance competition will give him fulfilment. When he meets an older, more sophisticated woman, he is attracted to her for many reasons…
Whereas John Avildsen’s The Karate Kid culminates with the big tournament, for Tony the dance-off brings to the fore all that is wrong with the life that he has led. He doesn’t need to prove himself, but to better himself. He wants to rise above the squabbling and childishness that he sees around and within his family home. A recurring motif that sheds light on Tony's character is that he knows every minute detail about the Brooklyn Bridge - he frequently considers it and where it may figuratively lead. Whether he can cross that bridge to his dreams, whether he can reach emotional maturity and see women as more than just a hobby or a lay, those are the core conflicts in this film. And no amount of blow drying will help him there.
Saturday Night Fever was Gene Siskel’s favourite film. I suspect this is because of Travolta’s success in portraying a genuine everyman, a character whose position to which many people can relate. While the dancefloor scenes (so brilliantly spoofed in Airplane!) and iconic accompanying soundtrack are a real visual delight, the true pleasure is in watching, and remembering with nostalgia, the struggles on the path to fulfilment.
Verdict: 15/17 bowls of spaghetti