By David Speranza
When the movie Saturday Night Fever was released in December of 1977, it became a smash critical and popular success that delivered disco to the masses, John Travolta to movie theaters, and a soundtrack that became the biggest-selling of all time. But in my household, the film’s influence was precisely . . . nil. Considering my family’s strict rock & roll diet, at 13 I didn’t have to be told that a movie about disco was persona non grata. (Say it with me now: “Disco sucks.”) But beyond hewing to the party line, we also thought those high-pitched Bee Gee voices were whiny, nasal, and annoyingly ubiquitous in the months following the film’s release.
And those voices—along with the other Fever songs cramming the airwaves—were everywhere. I don’t remember how many times we’d be driving somewhere when that thumping bass and Gibb-brother whine would suddenly infect the car radio, causing one or the other Woodstock-era parent to reach violently for the tuner with a stream of R-rated invective. I knew the rules: if it had a dance beat, it was shunned—as clear as the laws of physics.
For the next half decade, my views on disco—and by extension, Saturday Night Fever—were unchanged, even after the country’s disco rage had long subsided. When the movie showed up on cable in both PG and R-rated versions, I peeked in at a few scenes to see what had been cut (some backseat nudity, it turned out, and a bunch of my parents’ favorite swear words). But that was mainly due to my brief crush on Donna Pescow (anyone remember TV’s Angie?), not because my opinion had wavered.
Jump forward to college, where a free on-campus screening of the movie is scheduled. Now officially a film student, I decide it might be of academic interest to belatedly see what the fuss was about. I’m a little embarrassed to be going and, rebel that I am, wonder what my parents might think. But upon finally sitting down to absorb this recent relic of pop culture past, I’m immediately struck by how friggin’ cool the opening shots of Tony Manero’s strutting legs are—purely from a cinematic standpoint, of course—and how . . . appropriate . . . the music is to the character and setting, and (damn it) how good the movie actually is. Contrary to what I’d believed, Saturday Night Fever wasn’t a frivolous paean to the coolness of disco, all surface and flashy numbers. It was in truth a well-realized and affecting drama about a guy outgrowing his working-class Brooklyn roots and needing to step out (literally) into a more forward-looking world. By movie’s end, disco, white suits, and being cool are what Tony rejects. That life, he determines, is a dead end.
I was shocked. I was also amused. How could all those people slavishly embracing the movie’s style and music in 1978 have missed that they were jumping onto a bandwagon the movie clearly thought was for losers? I was so glad I hadn’t joined that hayride (thanks, Mom and Dad). And since I now knew that the message of the One Great Disco Film was “Disco Sucks,” I could be as big a fan as I wanted! Which I was—telling all my friends how great it was and how wrong I’d been, my genuine feelings of repent offset by a sense of retroactive vindication. But it was the early ’80s, the terrible sequel Staying Alive had yet to be released, and nobody really cared. I remained smugly triumphant . . . even if I still didn’t like the music.
More years passed, marked by new wave, glam rock, synth pop, hip-hop, grunge, and any number of musical genres and styles, many of which were defined by the dance beats and rhythms first introduced by disco. As I went from perfecting my moonwalk in the privacy of my bedroom to dancing badly in clubs from North Carolina to New York to Europe, the thumping bass and simple grooves I’d shunned when they were called “disco” now became the building blocks of any club track worth dancing to. (I still get an uncontrollable urge to hit the dance floor whenever Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” plays—even if it means risking a groin pull.)
So when I recently attended a friend’s 1970s-themed wedding reception, it was with unexpected dismay that, upon hearing “Stayin’ Alive” thump across the dining hall, I found myself join everyone else in—could it be?—a welcoming cheer. To my amazement, those whiny, nasal voices and strutting beat, once such an affront to me and my loved ones, now evoked the comfortable familiarity of an old friend. Was it simply nostalgia, a yearning for the days when life was divided into disco lovers and disco haters? Was it an evolution in my musical tastes? A new openness to things I’d once unthinkingly hated? Or was it just the wine I’d been guzzling?
But it wasn’t the wine. Since then I’ve listened—and grooved—to a number of other Saturday Night Fever tracks: “Night Fever,” “More Than A Woman,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” even “If I Can’t Have You.” And the truth, despite all my rock-reared instincts, is unvavoidable: Those songs are pretty darn good. They’re smooth, well-produced, classical in their pop perfection. Compared to today’s harder, brasher dance tracks, they almost qualify as easy listening. Sure, they’re strongly evocative of their time and place (and make me want to videotape my feet while strutting down a Brooklyn sidewalk), but I don’t think it’s just nostalgia. Maybe—just maybe—disco doesn’t suck after all . . .
Somewhere across the country, my parents are swearing at me.