40 years ago today the movie Saturday Night Fever premiered in American cinemas. A story on disco, film, music, lies and an other time.
Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night
In 1975 Northern Irish rock writer Nik Cohn left for New York and went to work with New York magazine. He felt increasingly alienated from the current music business and managed to convince founder and editor of New York magazine, Clay Felker, to assign him with the task to look into a new phenomenon. A new, largely ethnic, mainly gay, trend that swept though parts of New York: disco.
On June 7th, 1976, Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night was published. The article was a smash. Besides the common (and predictable) comments on the “moral decay of today’s youth”, it described the everyday lives and hardships of Italian-American youths. Desperation, unemployment, sexism, violence: it was not a romantic story. Only on Saturday nights it was time to shine: on the dance floor, away from the problems of daily existence. Dancing without worries. Showing off, covering up the emptiness of daily life.
In 1976 Cohn met a disco dancer named Tu Sweet, who introduced him to the clubs of New York, among which 2001 Odyssey at Bay Ridge. The discotheque became the centerpiece of Cohn’s story. Disco as a genre and subculture had been brewing in New York for quite some time. Cohn’s article came at just the right time (for disco).
At the end of the 1960’s David Mancuso introduced his infamous loft parties. He played danceable rock and mixed it with R&B. Essentially, disco before it was called disco. The parties were intended to mingle as much people from different classes, race and sexual preference as possible to get together and dance.
Francis Grasso was the first DJ who mixed different records into one continuous flow using two record players. In the mid 1970’s clubs were appearing, like the famous Studio 54, the Manhattan club, home of the jetset. The ‘common folk’ went to discotheques like 2001 Odyssey, the discotheque in Cohn’s story.
Saturday Night Fever – The movie
The story’s popularity was so immense, that it incited a bidding war on its movie rights. Robert Stigwood won. Stigwood was a music entrepreneur, manager (for bands like the Bee Gees) and owner of RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization), the company that was to produce and release Saturday Night Fever. Play writers edited the New York article and turned main character Vincent into Tony Manero, which was to be portrayed by a young actor named John Travolta. RSO had, just recently, signed a deal with him for three movies. It was hard finding a director, for “we do movies, we don’t do magazine articles”.
The fact that RSO was (more than) right was proved very quickly: within just 11 days after the movie’s premiere, it had already made more than $ 11 million. Travolta was an instant world star and Saturday Night Fever the movie and its accompanying soundtrack started on their course to become the icons that they are nowadays.
In The Netherlands the movie was released on April 13th, 1978. I saw the movie in the early spring or summer of 1978, in a movie theater in the a town called Zwolle. At the time I stayed with my nephew. While most of the people queued up for the (first) Star Wars movie (which I hated at the time), we entered the theater easily for the screening of Saturday Night Fever. The movie was a huge success in The Netherlands also, but I guess matinées were not that popular.
At the time I was twelve years old. I thought it was a heavy movie. The way the character Annette was treated (rape) and the suicide on the bridge in particular, hit me hard. This was immediately followed by being in awe of the music and Travolta’s ‘cool’. Just the opening of the movie alone: Travolta walking on the sidewalk with the hypnotic (disco-)beat was fascinating to me.
Looking back on the movie, I am perplexed by its darkness. The subject are heavy and basically timeless. Only the scenes that are situated at the discotheque, place the movie at the time of the (rise of) disco. Beyond that, it’s a universal story. Youths without an appealing future, dreaming of a better life, without a clue as to how to achieve it. Only when they go out, the problems can be (temporarily) put aside.
The movie contains a great number of scenes that are beautiful. One of the defining scenes is where Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) sits on a bench with Stephanie, the girl he loves, and tells her about the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge (height, length, material), which is in front of them. You can feel how trapped he feels. The family in which he grew up in (he still lives with his parents) is suffocating. An unemployed father, a devout mother, high expectations, little money, violence, disappointment and hopelessness. Stephanie remarks “You live with your parents, you hang with your buddies and on Saturday nights you burn it all off at 2001 Odyssey. You’re a cliché. You’re nowhere, goin’ no place”, which summarizes the life of the main character rather accurately.
And still, despite all the hurt, the image of Travolta in his white suit on the dance floor, prevails.
The movie holds up amazingly well. And I think it is because the movie is the exact opposite of what it seems to remind of: an adolescent movie on going out and carefree fun. It is a great example of the way movies were made in the 1970’s: real-life characters, the story is raw and, although the film ends with some kind of hope, the movie doesn’t have a happy end.
The movie has a number of explicit scenes, the reason the movie was initially rated “R” (youths under the age of 17 can see the movie with parental guidance). Given the movie’s and the music’s enormous popularity, the movie was re-released over the course of 1978 in a mellowed-down version, which was rated “PG” (parental guidance is advised).
In 2010 Saturday Night Fever was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Saturday Night Fever – The album
But what’s the movie worth without the music? Still good, but less nonetheless. Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Sound Track is the (double) album that accompanies the movie Saturday Night Fever. Just in the US alone the album was sold over 15 million times. The album stayed on top of the album charts for 24 weeks, from January until July of 1978 and was an uninterrupted part of the charts until March of 1980. The album represented the disco craze that swept the world.
The story behind the soundtrack is funny. The movie and the Bee Gees are almost considered to be synonymous nowadays, but at the time the movie was filmed the Bee Gees weren’t involved with the project. John Travolta: “The Bee Gees weren’t even involved in the movie in the beginning … I was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs”. The Bee Gees’ music was added to the movie whilst editing the movie by placing their music on the soundtrack of the movie.
Because producer Robert Stigwood was also the Bee Gees’ manager, he called them in the studio in France, where they were in the middle of recording their new album. Robin Gibb:
We were recording our new album in the north of France. And we’d written about and recorded about four or five songs for the new album when Stigwood rang from LA and said, “We’re putting together this little film, low budget, called Tribal Rites of a Saturday Night. Would you have any songs on hand? “, and we said, “Look, we can’t, we haven’t any time to sit down and write for a film”. We didn’t know what it was about.
But still, they went to work and over the course of one weekend they wrote a bunch of songs. The first one they recorded was If I Can’t Have You, which is sung by Yvonne Elliman on the soundtrack (known for her part as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar).
When they auditioned the songs to the director and Stigwood, they were overly excited. Even though the Gibb brothers had no idea what the movie was going to be like and were clueless on its subject, they somehow felt the general mood and direction. One request was made: could they make it “more discoey”?
They subsequently wrote a new song: Saturday Night. Maurice Gibb:
There were so many songs called Saturday Night even one by the Bay City Rollers, so when we rewrote it for the movie, we called it Stayin’ Alive. Recording Stayin’ Alive was not simple. Engineer Karl Richardson copied a choice few seconds of drumming from Night Fever, cut out the piece of tape and glued the ends together, then fed it back into a recorder by a makeshift arrangement to create a new drum track. Drummer Dennis Bryon did not attend the recording of Stayin’ Alive.
The final album contains one previously released Bee Gees song: the fantastic and funky Jive Talkin’. At the very last moment the scene that uses the song was deleted from the movie.
Is the album as good as the movie? No, but it is very good. It has some flawed moments. A Fifth Of Beethoven, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony set to a disco beat, while amusing, does not endure. Luckily, the album has enough to recommend.
The undisputed highlight is Night Fever, one of my all time favorite songs. When Stigwood suggested Saturday Night as the title to the movie and requested a song using that title, the Bee Gees refused, and instead suggested a song they had written earlier: Night Fever. The group manged to persuade Stigwood to use the song and rename the movie to Saturday Night Fever.
A flawless four-on -the-floor rhythm, with beautiful strings and a glorious staccato rhythm guitar. A top song and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best songs disco had to offer.
Night fever, night fever
We know how to do it
Gimme that night fever, night fever
We know how to show it
© 1977 Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb & Maurice Gibb
In 1978 the soundtrack won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It’s the only disco album to receive that award and it was the first time it was awarded to a soundtrack album.
Just like the movie, the soundtrack was also deemed culturally significant. It was included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress on March 21st, 2013.
|A||Stayin’ Alive||Bee Gees|
|Night Fever||Bee Gees|
|How Deep Is Your Love||Bee Gees|
|More Than A Woman||Bee Gees|
|If I Can’t Have You||Yvonne Elliman|
|B||A Fifth Of Beethoven||Walter Murphy|
|More Than A Woman||Tavares|
|Manhattan Skyline||David Shire|
|Calypso Breakdown||Ralph MacDonald|
|C||Night On Disco Mountain||David Shire|
|Open Sesame||Kool & The Gang|
|Jive Talkin’||Bee Gees|
|You Should Be Dancing||Bee Gees|
|Boogie Shoes||KC & The Sunshine Band|
|Disco Inferno||The Trammps|
4 singles off the soundtrack were released in The Netherlands: How Deep Is Your Love, More Than A Woman, Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever.
The movie has had a lot of significance for John Travolta, the Bee Gees, RSO, disco and Nik Cohn, the writer of the article that was the foundation for everything to come.
After the success of Saturday Night Fever (it even earned him an Oscar nomination) his fame reached even higher. In 1978 Grease was released (more on that next year). Travolta seemed set on a bright future. But almost every film after, flopped. The first time Travolta was once again regarded as a decent actor was when Quentin Tarantino asked him for Pulp Fiction in 1994.
The name Travolta became synonymous for turning down roles, that could have refueled his career, like American Gigolo and An Officer And A Gentleman. If Travolta refused a movie, it was almost certain it would become a hit. Contrary to those films, he did decide to participate in the sequel to Saturday Night Fever: the disastrous Staying Alive from 1983, which saw Travolta revisiting his role as Tony Manero. The storyline was so thin, the movie could not be anything else than a huge flop.
At the end of the 1970’s the Bee Gees where the world’s largest band. They overstepped when filming Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which saw the Gibb brothers ‘act’. The first sequel, album-wise, was Spirits Having Flown in 1979, a huge success. After the following tour, the general public had Bee Gees fatigue. It took quite some time for the Bee Gees to be reevaluated.
Fever was No. 1 every week … It wasn’t just like a hit album. It was No. 1 every single week for 25 weeks. It was just an amazing, crazy, extraordinary time. I remember not being able to answer the phone, and I remember people climbing over my walls. I was quite grateful when it stopped. It was too unreal. In the long run, your life is better if it’s not like that on a constant basis. Nice though it was.
Immediately following the tremendous success of Saturday Night Fever RSO released Grease. Comparable to its predecessor: movie and soundtrack ruled the radio, charts and sales figures. However, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all was different. The movie was butchered and the public was indifferent.
In 1980 the Bee Gees filed a $200 million suit against RSO and Stigwood for mismanagement. Eventually, it was settled out of court and the group stayed on at the label.
The same reasoning behind the rise of disco was behind the rise of another genre in other parts of New York and, particularly, England: punk. Both genres seem to be completely separate worlds, but have more in common than meets the eye. The same kind of unease, the same future (no future) and the same solution: dressing up for the evening and dance (disco or pogo).
But, one major difference, was how both phenomenons were (ultimately) reacted to. Punk’s energy was copied into many recordings and led to many new and exciting subgenres, many of them combined under the collected moniker new wave. Disco was copied as well (think The Rolling Stones’ Miss You and Rod Stewart’s Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?), but was vilified, particularly by the (white) rock audiences. Mechanical, no music, not ‘real’ music anyway. All the things that were being said of rap, hip-hop and house later on, was said about disco at the time. Extremely over-simplified of course, but many seemed to endorse the idea. Disco Sucks even turned into a real movement.
The ‘highlight’ was reached on Disco Demolition Day, July 12th, 1979 at Comiskey Park, Chicago. Led by the (laid-off) dee-jay Steven Dahl (“This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeeal goooood”), who had organized the demonstration, a crate of vinyl disco records was blasted. A considerable number of the 50,000 people in attendance stormed the field. Special forces were commissioned to restore order.
Despite denials, the event did leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. The images and hysteria reminded the infamous book burnings by the Nazi’s some decades earlier. The fact that disco was originally a black, Latino and gay phenomenon, did play a part in the aversion of a (great?) number of the adversaries to disco.
The Disco Sucks movement being responsible for the decline of disco, is highly unlikely, but the fact remains that disco had by and large disappeared in the early 1980’s and went back underground. It’s also a fact that disco could not be stopped. It developed itself into house, which revolutionized the music world late 1980’s. Nowadays, dance is not so easily marginalized.
On the evening of Saturday Night Fever‘s premiere there probably was only one man deeply unhappy: Nik Cohn. Maybe the intro to the article Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night should have been a warning sign: “Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved. Only the names of the main characters have been changed”.
In 1997 Nik Cohn announced that he had made the complete story up. After Tu Sweet’s introduction, Cohn went to2001 Odyssey. On that particular night, a fight between drunk youths was taking place. Just as Cohn opened the taxi door one of the boys threw up on his trousers. He immediately stepped back in the car and headed straight back to Manhattan.
He couldn’t shake the image from his head of a ‘cool’ man standing by the door of the discotheque. It reminded him of a mod from London whom Cohn had met in 1965. When Cohn returned at a later time, he couldn’t find the man. Because he felt uncomfortable (“I knew nothing about this world, and it showed. Quite literally, I didn’t speak the language”), he made up a story about the man by the door. He called him Vincent (the article’s main character, which served as the core for John Travolta’s character). He translated mod London to Brooklyn. He went back during the day to memorize the surroundings, walk the streets, visit shops and study clothes and general behavior.
Cohn became (very, very) rich off his article. But how is it possible that the article is just a fabrication? It fit the general way in which articles came about during that time. Real-life articles generally possessed a literary level and were written in a subjective way. Many magazine writers employed fictional techniques in order to convey facts. On top of that, editors didn’t ask questions: ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.
Despite the story’s lack of facts, Saturday Night Fever still painted a convincing portrait of youthful people in search of meaning. Going out and dancing as a solution seemed to be more universal and timeless than expected. Nik Cohn managed to feel the zeitgeist with his story. Besides the readers, who by and large were outside if disco, many young people still recognized themselves in the story.
In 1978 another major disco-movie was released: Thank God It’s Friday. Where Saturday Night Fever convinced, Thank God It’s Friday failed miserably. The movie lacked authenticity, the story was too thin and the music was, with the exception of Donna Summer, below par. The first flop for Casablanca Records in 3 years. The company was convinced they could compete with the competition, but was blown out of the water by Saturday Night Fever.
After all these years Saturday Night Fever is still a phenomenon, given the Saturday Night Fever musical, which, 40 years later, draws huge crowds into theaters.
What do you think of Saturday Night Fever, the movie and the soundtrack? Let me know, I am curious!
Saturday Night Fever – Album gatefold image: medium.com
Nik Cohn – Tribal Rights Of The New Saturday Night & Saturday Night Fever – Premiere images: theguardian.com
2001 Odyssey Disco image: disco-disco.com
Studio 54 Logo image: brandsoftheworld.com
Saturday Night Fever – Opening sequence image: artofthetitle.com
Saturday Night Fever – Verrazano–Narrows Bridge scene image: asliceofbrooklyn.com
Saturday Night Fever – Movie still image: nytimes.com
O.S.T. – Saturday Night Fever image: amoeba.com
Yvonne Elliman – If I Can’t Have You (single) & Bee Gees – Night Fever (single) images: 45cat.com
Saturday Night Fever – Dancing (movie scene) image: theredlist.com
Staying Alive – movie poster image: imdb.com
Bee Gees logo 1975-1981 & Thank God It’s Friday – Movie poster images: wikipedia.org
RSO logo image: redbubble.com
Banner on Disco Demolition Day image: awfulannouncing.com