“Saturday Night Fever” is nothing more than an updated ’70s version of the Sam Katzman rock music cheapies of the ’50s. That is to say, Robert Stigwood’s production is a more shrill, more vulgar, more trifling, more superficial and more pretentious exploitation film. John Travolta stars as an amiably inarticulate NY kid who comes to life only in a disco environment. The clumsy story lurches forward through predictable travail and treacle, separated by phonograph records (or vice versa). John Badham’s direction is awkward. The paramount release is a fast playoff item in the undiscriminating youth market, where the totally deserved R rating may be a self-induced handicap.
A magazine feature by Nik Cohn was the basis for a screenplay credited to Norman Wexler (who, in press promo material, seems by omission to be the sole scripter of “Serpico,” though Waldo Salt shared and preceded in that dual credit). Coloring-book plot lines give Travolta a bad home life (Val Bisoglio’s father is an ethnic horror story), a formula gang of buddies (Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Bruce Ornstein), an available ‘bad’ girl (Donna Pescow), an elusive ‘good’ girl (Karen Lynn Gorney) plus lots of opportunity to boogie on the dance floor and make out in automobile back seats. There is, of course, an upbeat ending.
Between original music by Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb plus David Shire, and familiar platter hits, the film usually has some rhythm going on in the background. With Dolby sound and modern recording techniques, the music track can be played at mercifully high noise levels.
Considering the vulgarity of the dramatic sequences, it’s tempting to call this a teenage musical version of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” but the preexisting Katzman film formula is the overridingly appropriate comparison.
The filmmakers must have known that the heavy-handed raunchy dialog and situation would easily warrant an R film rating; yet the principal characters are not yet young adults. This is out and out “high school” melodrama. While exhibitors under certain circumstances look the other way when an R tag is on some innocuous programmer, the high visibility of “Saturday Night Fever” is such as to make laxness of enforcement decidedly imprudent.
Travolta’s characterization, given the script and directorial demands, is okay. It will please the already-committed; but it won’t win him any new fans. Gorney is very good, beginning as a superficial person but emerging as one with some depth. Pescow handles well the girl of more casual morals. Travolta’s neighborhood buddies are adequately simplistic. Martin Shakar plays Travolta’s older brother who has ankled the priesthood, one of the showhorned family traumas.
Production credits are all good insofar as they evoke the gritty, sweaty environment of New York by night.
“Saturday Night Fever,” which seemed to promise a sight-and-sound collage of the disco world and its people, is a major disappointment in that the topical disco milieu is a slapdash backdrop to the worst in teenage exploitation rehash. The earlier comparison to Katzman and his quickies for Columbia actually is a disservice to him, since Katzman at least knew precisely what his market was and what it would stand. Stigwood, et al., don’t even seem to have that expertise.
1977: Nomination: Best Actor (John Travolta)