For a lot of people, all you have to do to summon the year 1977 is synch up a four-on-the-floor dance beat with a shot of a pair of men’s high-heeled, red-leather boots strutting down a Brooklyn sidewalk. Bingo: You are magically transported back to the era of “Saturday Night Fever” and now you can’t get “Stayin’ Alive” out of your head.
The movie’s circling back for the first time in a while, getting reissued on disc and digital on-demand and screening at various New England multiplexes on Sunday and again on Wednesday (check listings), courtesy of Fathom Events. It’s the film’s 40th anniversary, meaning that we’re getting a digital 4K restoration and a director’s cut, and also that we’re old.
But I’m bringing “Fever” to your attention for more than just nostalgia points, although that’s fine too. The reason it’s worth revisiting in theaters or, failing that, dialing up at home (with a respectable sound system) is that you may have forgotten it’s a surprisingly good movie. A pop-culture landmark, obviously, and a reminder of a truly tragic era in American men’s wear. The young John Travolta’s best early claim to fame, yes. An aural bookmark of a time when you probably left Talking Heads albums around your dorm room because they looked cooler but kept sneaking the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack onto the turntable because it was just guilty-pleasure great.
We remember “Saturday Night Fever” as a cultural phenomenon that belongs in the attic with Pet Rocks, 8-track tapes, and disco “Star Wars” remixes — a beloved monument of cheese. Watch it again, though: The movie’s actually one of the last gasps of the New Hollywood ’70s, when characters were funky and realistic and endings were ambiguous if not actively downbeat — when the premium was on showing life as it was, not how we wanted it to be.
That was what the local discotheque was for: to leave the crud of the working week behind and feel like you were somebody. The opening moments of “Saturday Night Fever” are still ridiculously perfect, Travolta as Tony Manero stepping down the street in time to the bubbling disco beat, stopping to admire shirts and shoes in shop windows. It’s the pre-Walkman era; he’s carrying the music in his head and in his feet. He has a can of paint in his hands. The film has already opened with a long helicopter shot of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, beneath it, with nothing on the soundtrack but the howling of wind. This is the void that Tony’s resisting.
The movie was based on a 1976 New York magazine article called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” by British journalist Nik Cohn, about a group of Italian-American teenagers for whom Manhattan was a distant rumor and who lived to dance at the local 2001 Odyssey nightclub. The article is gorgeously written, with rhapsodic passages like this: “When [Vincent] kissed his mother good-bye and came down onto Fourth, strutting loose, he wore an open-necked shirt, ablaze with reds and golds, and he moved through the night with shoulders hunched tight, his neck rammed deep between his shoulder blades in the manner of a miniature bull. A bull in Gucci-style loafers, complete with gilded buckle, and high black pants tight as sausage skins. Shuffling, gliding, stepping out.”
The movie retained a surprising amount of elements from that article, but Cohn’s central figure, Vincent, is a lot sadder than his onscreen counterpart. He also never actually existed, a fact that the journalist belatedly confessed to in the 1990s, first in the Guardian and then to a reporter for The New York Times. By then the movie and Travolta’s performance had become so emblematic it hardly seemed to matter. Maybe there wasn’t a real Tony Manero, but we felt we knew him anyway.
Making his second feature, director John Badham was influenced by the early Martin Scorsese film “Mean Streets,” and you can feel some of the young Robert De Niro’s jittery energy in Travolta’s Tony, just smoothed down and tightly controlled. “Fever” offers a vision of cramped, dead-end young lives, where fathers are out of work and mothers go to church two times a day to ask God to ask their sons to phone home. Women are disposable, virgins or whores, and pregnancy is a death sentence. The language is unvarnished and ugly: Tony’s friends sling the N-word around and harass a gay couple, and the movie leaves judgment up to us. Are the filmmakers aware of the irony that disco itself arose out of black and gay nightclub scenes? The characters definitely aren’t.
And yet “Saturday Night Fever” is about redemption and salvation every time Tony and his friends hit the dance floor, with its mirror balls and colored panels pulsating like an arcade game. The communal groove to the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” remains a potent peak of mid-’70s ecstasy and Travolta’s solo dance to “Dancin’ ” at the film’s midpoint is a high-water mark from which you could argue the actor never recovered. It’s the movie’s apex, too. Soon enough we’re into a gang rape and a character’s plunge off the bridge, all plot elements designed to get Tony aligning his compass needle north, toward Manhattan and escape and a 1983 sequel of which we will not speak.
Forty years later, Brooklyn is somehow, incomprehensibly, hipper than Manhattan. Bay Ridge is gentrifying. Travolta is on his umpteenth career resurgence on the heels of his portrayal of Robert Shapiro in “The People v O.J. Simpson.” Watching “Saturday Night Fever” in 2017, you’re reminded that even though no one sings, the movie is a musical, really, as much as “La La Land” and for the same reasons. The genre’s about the hope of grace in a graceless world — the idea that there are perfect patterns of words and music and movement and if we’re very lucky (or if we work really hard at it) we’ll briefly transcend the chaos into something clean and meaningful.
Forty years on, the movie still matters. For all the proof you need, walk down any sidewalk and hear the snap-crackle-pop of “Stayin’ Alive” in your head. For those few minutes, you’re the king of Brooklyn and the world.