In 1977 Brooklyn, it didn’t matter what kind of car a guy drove or where he worked. As long as he was half-decent looking and could move on the dance floor, guys like Tony Manero would have the ladies lining up for their turn to boogie. The city was an exciting place to be during the seventies. And, since New York City is so full of opportunity and talent, it’s almost impossible to not get caught up in a dream.
Saturday Night Fever starts off by introducing the audience to a handsome young man strutting down the busy streets of NYC and carrying a gallon of paint. Tony Manero looks as if he is on a mission, but he is easily side tracked by shiny new shoes, good-looking girls, and a sexy, new collared shirt he can’t resist. He decides the shoes aren’t any nicer than the ones he’s already wearing, gives up on the pretty ladies after a few unanswered cat calls, and immediately puts the shirt on layaway: a typical day in the life of a 19-year-old paint store clerk from Brooklyn. The audience soon learns that Tony wants the shirt to wear to the club on Saturday night, and so he desperately asks his boss for an advance on his pay. He is denied, but not completely discouraged. He heads home to his parents and an adoring little sister. The parents are another story, however, because they are more concerned with their absent, older son, Father Frank, Jr. He argues with his parents a little like all teenagers, but it is clear that he loves his family very much. Next, the viewers are introduced to Tony’s friends. They all smoke, curse, drive like lunatics, and care a lot about their hair. From the start it is obvious that Tony is somewhat of the ringleader: girls want to dance with him and guys want to be like him.
Many details in Saturday Night Fever are related to those of a classical Hollywood musical. For example, Odyssey 2000 sets a stage for the transition from narrative reality to musical reality. The club is like a mystical escape with its low lighting, fog machines, disco balls, and lit-up dance floor. The director also creates a mood of guilty pleasure by using camera shots angled up at short-skirt clad girls. A particularly standout shot is one of a girl in an orange skirt twirling around. The camera is focused on only her hip region and a brief shot of her panties as her skirt fans up tells the audience that nothing is taboo at Odyssey 2000.
Some narrative sequence also lends to Saturday Night Fever’s credibility as a musical. For example, Tony has issues with both Annette, a girl he entered a dance competition with and went out with only once, as well as Stephanie, a slightly older woman he meets at Odyssey and becomes interested in. However, once they are on the dance floor these underlying issues can be played out through movement. In the case of Annette, Tony does not like the way she is always following him around and nagging him to enter more dance competitions with her since she is not that talented. On the dance floor Tony can play out these emotions without feeling as if he is hurting anyone’s feelings. So when the hustle comes on and Annette tries to schmooze her way between Tony and other girls he nonchalantly moves away and becomes caught up in his passion for dance. On the other hand, Tony is intrigued by Stephanie because she is a few years older, has a good job, is getting out of Brooklyn, and, most importantly, dances beautifully. This is acted out physically on the dance floor by the way Tony and Stephanie move so wonderfully together. They appear as if they are floating rather than stepping.
Conversely, Saturday Night Fever also departs from the classical Hollywood musical in the sense that the narrative and musical realities are not completely separated. According to Belton, classic musicals “operate according to two different laws.” This is untrue of Saturday Night Fever because Tony is still responsible for his actions in the club as he would in everyday life. The dance floor may help him alleviate some stress from his everyday life, but it is by no means a true escape. Tony has no fantasies of becoming a famous dancer and even admits that dancing is something he will only be able to do for a few more years.
Saturday Night Feveris very much a conservative musical. At the end of the film, all is well and the audience is left with a sense of equilibrium. Frank, Jr.’s decision to leave the church helps Tony realize that he must do what will make him happy in life, and not what anyone else wants or expects. He still has no illusions of grandeur about his dancing, but he does decide that he will not be a 20-year veteran of the paint clerk profession as most of his colleagues. He and Stephanie decide to just be friends and she promises him that he can achieve better things for himself as she has.
In the end, Saturday Night Fever is, if nothing else, a quasi-musical. An alternate stage is set by the moodiness of Odyssey 2000 and the seriousness of the dance studio, but an alternate reality is not truly achieved. The dancing world of Tony Manero is the same as in his real life. He may be considered an idol on the dance floor and not at work, but these two worlds still operate according to the same rules. The audience sees this when Tony cannot manage to score Stephanie as his girlfriend no matter how smooth he is on the floor. When it all boils down, the Odyssey 2000, the paint store, the dance studio, the bridge, and all the other settings of the movie belong to the same reality.
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