John Travolta plays an Italian-American called Tony in New York in the late 70s. He faces the drudgery of day-to-day life working in a hardware store, going nowhere, until Saturday night, when he is the king of the dancefloor, busting his moves to a variety of disco hits.
I admit that if you don’t like disco music this might not be the film for you. There’s Disco Inferno, A Fifth of Beethoven, and oh so much Bee Gees. On top of it all there are stunning disco dancing scenes which show that disco dancing really is an under-appreciated art form. Pop culture references abound, with Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone (who went on to direct the sequel, Staying Alive) popping up and the 2001 Odyssey club providing the backdrop for the dance sequences.
The film is a little rough around the edges. The editing is dodgy, with some lip movements totally out of sync with the accompanying dialogue. The dramatic side outside the club is decent but not as compelling as it could be, even if it deserves credit for its commitment to social realism. This could be the Rocky of disco, instead it’s the Mean Streets. At times it’s wincingly brutal, with Travolta’s nice-but-dim Tony exhibiting behaviours and attitudes typical of his peer group but hopefuly, if true-to-life, confined to the past.
This is what Martin Scorsese would have made if he preferred disco music to crime. Like the similarly titled Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, set in the UK 17 years earlier, it’s about the difference between our day-to-day lives and how we spend our nights, arguably serving as a warning of the dangers of over-indulgence. Like that film it pushed the boundaries of acceptability – it was the first film to use the term ‘blow job’ for example – but unlike that film it features a string of iconic disco hits, making it immediately better.
This is an iconic slice of film history that established John Travolta as one of the leading film stars of his generation.