Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Saturday Night Fever

 "It's still not a kid's picture."

I remember those words so clearly, spoken by a woman ahead of my dad and I as we exited a matinee of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  Even then, as a nine year old, I knew she was right. I had not expected such a raw, uncomfortable experience, and this wasn't even the true version. The movie had opened the previous Christmas.  It was a deservedly R-rated feature that nonetheless swept the box office.  Paramount, in a smart marketing move, had the film re-edited to earn a PG-rating, "so everyone could experience the fever." All those tykes who knew the film's star, John Travolta, from his innocuous sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and GREASE.

Like many of my friends, I had the soundtrack.  Double LP. Beyond the ubiquitous Bee Gees tunes, there were a plethora of cool things that became the soundtrack as well to my 4th grade life. I have so many memories associated with that movie in those days; it's impossible not to think about them whenever I catch it. It (the original cut) was also a Holy Grail of sorts, a forbidden movie that ignited my curiosity and scared me and made me wonder if I would go blind if I actually watched it. I even felt that way during the PG showing.

I would see the true edit about 6-7 years later. Wow.  The PG version was truly diluted. While the essential story and some of the grit remained, director John Badham's vision had been compromised to network TV standards. The harshness of the language and sexuality was nearly absent. The story was softened. It still wasn't a kid's picture.

Who doesn't know the plot? Brooklyn youth Tony Manero (Travolta) begins to recognize the aimlessness of his existence in the insular neighborhood: working in a paint store and hanging with his crude pals who are even less ambitious than himself. They act like animals. His family life (at home with parents and grandparent) is dismal. But Tony has some serious dancing skills that he demonstrates at the local disco nearly every night, montaged so excitingly by Badham and company in sequences that are as legendary as anything Hollywood ever produced. It is at these moments that Tony finds some meaning in his life, something to fill the void. But as the original ads read, "Where do you go when the record is over?"

Tony searches, continually disappointed. His brother is quitting the priesthood. Sex offers little satisfaction. His ability to even recognize women as human beings is pretty underdeveloped. They throw themselves at him, and in a telling moment we see a doe eyed fan at the club who offers to wipe his brow and in return is mocked. But enter Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a Brooklyn gal with an even thicker brogue than Tony's, and who at least emulates Manhattan sophistication, working in the city and name dropping celebrities. She is also a dancer and the two eventually enter a contest. On the way, Tony's insecurities bubble. His perhaps Madonna/whore complex point of view the catalyst. But by the time he rides the subway all night, alone and having reached bottom, there is some indication of awareness. Some possibility of repentance.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's detractors have called it a weaker version of Scorsese's MEAN STREETS, and that is not entirely inaccurate. But this film has a rhythm (so to speak) all its own and really expresses the desperation of those in the 'hood who have been bred to be one dimensional and racist. Who have resigned their fates. They gaze over at Manhattan with loathing and envy; it may as well be across the Atlantic. Without getting too specific (or filled with denigration) I'm reminded of some of my Brooklyn relatives. I've walked around Bensonhurst and heard the conversations on stoops, seen the packs of wasted youth. Heard the elders cast suspicion on anyone who did not resemble them (or even live in their neighborhood).  Spike Lee later got it right, too.

FEVER is more than a movie, it's a vital document (even if the story was later revealed to be fabricated). It pulses with life and vividness the way few movies do, and that always allows me to forgive any problems with the screenplay. Of course, it will always feel like a forbidden picture, and this always adds to the experience. There have been many things produced that are not kid's pictures, but this one may well feel the dirtiest, sleaziest, most revealing, and plain exciting of all for me.
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