Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1970s Movies, Classic Movies, Editorials, Film Criticism and Analysis, Social Drama

Why No One Gets that Saturday Night Fever (1977) Wasn’t a Love Letter to Disco

Being born in the 1970s, I was too young to see Saturday Night Fever. However, I not only remembered the explosion of disco but knew that this was the movie that started it all. The connection wasn’t hard to miss. One year disco wasn’t a thing, and the next thing you knew, posters of John Travolta in the famous leisure suit were everywhere and all you heard was disco music.

For decades, I avoided the movie like the plague. I’m not really a disco or Travolta fan and besides, I figured the movie would be nothing more than a string of musical numbers. At some point, however, I caved in. It seemed kind of absurd to consider myself a film buff, yet not have seen one of the most iconic movies of the 1970s. So I finally sat down and watched it.

When it was all over, I was absolutely gobsmacked. This was Saturday Night Fever? The movie that launched the disco craze? How? Sure, there were many great musical numbers with fun choreography and awesome clothing but at heart, the movie was wall to wall sleaze drowning in gang violence, rape, racism, misogyny and suicide. Plus, it was depressing as hell. How on earth could this movie have launched a dance phenomenon?

I found Saturday Night Fever’s legacy even more baffling considering that Tony Manero, who was propped up in real life as a sexy gigolo and disco king for both women and men to swoon after or emulate, was anything but admirable. He was working a dead end job with no real ambition in life, destined to wind up as an unemployed bum like his father or working as a low level grunt at a paint shop well into middle age. In his spare time, he drove around doing nothing except get high, pick fights with gang members and score pussy with his racist, misogynist friends.

Tony was also a chauvinist pig. He did nothing when Annette was gang-raped in the back of his car, then said the worst possible thing you could say to a rape victim after the act. He tried to rape his dance partner, Stephanie, because he was outraged that she never made any effort to put out. Lastly, Tony was an immature, self-centered narcissist. He was completely oblivious to the plight of his friend because he cared more about winning a stupid dance competition than helping someone in an emotional crisis. Tony Manero couldn’t have been less of a role model yet somehow, movie audiences not only idolized him but wanted to be or meet someone like him.

The most shocking thing of all about Saturday Night Fever is that it wasn’t even the love letter to disco that everyone made it out to be. If anything, it was the opposite. It painted disco nightlife as a vain, superficial scene that was only about looking cool, wearing the right threads and having the right dance moves. But most importantly of all, Saturday Night Fever was suggesting that disco was becoming an activity that losers like Tony Manero were losing themselves in in order to escape from the real world and the reality of who they were. So the movie, rather than trying to make the scene seem oh, so cool and attractive, was trying to expose it as a form of mindless escapism, not celebrate it.

Given everything I’ve said so far, how on earth could the public have gotten it so horribly wrong about what Saturday Night Fever was trying to say and do? Especially regarding the famous leisure suit? For so many people, the famous image of John Travolta striking a pose in the black and white suit marked his status as Disco King and symbolized everything that was sexy and cool about disco. That was the suit that got everyone to say, “I want to be a disco king just like Tony! (Or at least meet a hot, sexy guy like him on the dance floor!) Let’s go to one!”


What everyone seems to have missed is that the night Tony Manero wears that suit marked the end of his love affair with disco and exposed him for the poser and loser that he was. The night he shows up to the club in that suit was supposed to be his big moment, the moment when he wins the dance contest, claims his title as king of the dance floor and “scores” with Stephanie. Instead, everything that could go wrong goes wrong. First, he shows up with a bandage on his face, so he looks like crap. He’s also feeling like crap because he just learned that he and his friends had beat up a rival gang for no reason.

He eagerly waits his turn for the dance competition expecting to blow everyone away, then watches two couples make him and Stephanie look like a pair of rank amateurs. This completely blows his illusion about himself as an amazing dancer and king of the dance floor. Things go from bad to worse when he unfairly wins the contest because he’s Italian-American. This is when he learns that the local scene, which had propped him up as a local celebrity, had never really cared about his dancing skills; all anyone had cared about was that he was one of them. This is also the first time Tony is disgusted by the racism of his neighborhood, since he knew that the Puerto Rican couple, who had been awarded second place, had won first place fair and square.

Later, Tony blows his chances with Stephanie by becoming sexually aggressive, then verbally abusive when she refuses to give in to his advances. Understandably, she walks out on him in disgust. Finally, the debauched lifestyle Tony and his friends have been enjoying takes a dark turn–Annette is raped under the influence, and Bobby, also under the influence, kills himself. Now he realizes what trashy lives he and his friends have been leading and that much like the middle aged guy working at the hardware store or his deadbeat father, he is on a fast track to nowhere. He also realizes how messed up his priorities were, that instead of being so concerned about looking good at the disco, he should’ve been looking out for his friend and planning his future.

After a horrible night rife with humiliation, heartbreak and tragedy, Tony is forced to come down to earth after living in the fantasy world of disco for so many weeks and face the reality of who he is and where he’s going in life. In case the audience didn’t get the point that reality had come crashing down on him, the movie had him in the iconic suit slumming it in a filthy graffiti-riddled NYC train car in the scene after his friend dies. You may think that the point of this scene was just for story’s sake (as in, he needed to take the train out to Manhattan to see Stephanie). But no. It was also so that the movie could have a clever scene symbolizing the turning point in the movie when Tony’s disco fever grinds to a screeching halt.


Before this pivotal scene, Tony–whenever he was in his disco clothes and looking his best–was always shown against the glamorous backdrop of glittering disco balls, snazzy dance floors and beautiful people in designer clothing. That backdrop represented the bubble Tony had been living in as part of the disco scene where he could avoid the ugliness of his circumstances, his friends and himself.  When the horrible events in the third act happens, the disco bubble bursts. Tony finally waking up to reality is symbolized by him wearing his most stylish disco outfit to date in the movie, except instead of him being backed by the glittering world of disco balls and dance floors, it’s backed by the real world of a dirty, grimy NYC subway car.


This scene was also there to show that Tony had unequivocally quit the disco scene. Until this moment, he had been so meticulous when it came to his disco outfits, he wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing one this spiffy on a NYC subway train. Not only would a suit that nice have been too good for public transportation, he would’ve worried too much about getting it dirty or wrinkled, especially since it was made out of white fabric. After he decides to quit disco, he couldn’t care less about the suit, even though it was probably the most expensive one he had ever bought. In fact, he cares so little about it that he later pulls the collar up around his neck. This moment is the film letting audiences know that he’s not only quit disco, he’s never, ever going back.

This entire subway scene wasn’t so short or ambiguous that people could’ve blinked and missed it. It is what it is, Tony not only becoming disillusioned with disco but leaving that and his entire world behind in Brooklyn to make something better of himself. Yet somehow, it’s as if 1970s audiences didn’t see this scene at all, or maybe did see it but refused to acknowledge it. All everyone seemed to have done was clung to the now iconic image of Tony making his signature disco move in the white suit during the dance competition, as if the movie had ended on a high note.

Again, how on earth could the public have gotten it so horribly wrong about any of this? The reason goes to the heart of why Saturday Night Fever, however entertaining, is a deeply flawed film. In a nutshell, the movie is about Tony’s unhealthy obsession with disco. To get the audience to try to understand why a low life like him would fall in love with it, the movie worked hard to prop it up as glamorous and sexy so that they would be immersed in the disco scene as well. All the characters in it wore stylish designer clothing; the dance choreography was second to none; and the best disco artists of the period were used for the soundtrack.

Unfortunately, the movie did such a good job of propping up disco that it glamorized everything about it, even those negative aspects it was trying to expose. In fact, Saturday Night Fever glamorized disco to such an extent that dance clubs in real life made the vanity and narcissism of the film part and parcel of the experience. On the disco scene, the most important thing wasn’t your dancing; it was dressing to impress. Designer labels, the coolest fashions, and metallic fabrics were the rage; the flashier you looked on the dance floor, the more popular you were.

Real life dance clubs also encouraged mindless escapism. Going to the disco became less about simply enjoying a night of dancing than it was about completely losing yourself in the hypnotic beats and swirling lights until the outside world melted away and you came stumbling out of the club hours later wondering where the night went.

As if glamorizing escapism and narcissism wasn’t bad enough, Saturday Night Fever also confused audiences into thinking that the sex and drug scenes were part of what made disco cool. At Studio 54, the infamous nightclub that became as much as a phenomenon as the movie itself, patrons were encouraged to indulge in as much coke, booze and free love as they wanted–no questions asked. The crazy irony of it all is that the hedonism in Saturday Night Fever wasn’t supposed to have had anything to do with disco; those scenes were there to show how self-destructive Tony and his circle of friends were and show what empty lives they were leading. The movie even underscored all this by having their sexing and drugging end in tragedy (with Annette’s rape and the death of Tony’s friend). Yet audiences saw those scenes as an extension of the disco lifestyle, rather than a statement about Tony’s dead end existence.

Another thing that Saturday Night Fever did was overplay Tony’s positive traits. Tony is in reality a complete and total loser. However, he’s also an exceptionally sexy, good looking charismatic dancer with decent fashion sense. It’s his strengths that are the reason why he becomes the nightclub favorite, and which later causes him to chase the highs of disco nightlife. The more people fawn over him, the more he wants to bask in the glory of being disco king and the more he gets carried away with the entire lifestyle until he completely loses perspective.

When the terrible events in the third act happen–especially when Tony tries to force himself on Stephanie–this was when the audience was supposed to realize that in spite of his positive attributes, he was never anything more than a low life creep and pig. Unfortunately, just as it did when it glamorized disco, Saturday Night Fever did such a good job playing up Tony’s sexiness, charisma and dance skills that the reality of him being a complete and total loser was lost on the audience. Instead of seeing him as a punk who had a lot of growing up to do, all everyone focused on was him being a sexy hunk with cool moves who wowed all the ladies and was the epitome of 1970s macho.

Saturday Night Fever’s failure in trying to convey its message reminds me of Quadrophenia. I don’t really like the movie all that much, but it did a better job of what Saturday Night Fever was attempting to do. In that film, we see the protagonist become completely enchanted with the Mod lifestyle, only to learn that it was a shallow scene filled with poseurs that he was using to escape from his problems. While it captured the coolness of Mod perfectly, Quadrophenia never glamorized it to the point where audiences were sitting there wishing they had been a part of it all. Sure, the movie in a way led to a sort of mini Mod-revival when it was first released, but the fact that the revival never became the type of international phenomenon that disco did is a testament to how little Quadrophenia glamorized Mod.


All of this isn’t to say that Saturday Night Fever is a bad film. It’s just to express my surprise about how a film like this got everyone to run to the disco, when the whole point of it was to show its main character running away from it. It’s very easy to attack the audience for being too dumb to get its message, but nah–the movie’s clever approach of propping disco up so it could later expose it as a fantasy world worked a little too well and consequently, its message got lost in the shuffle.


  1. That was an incredible review. I agreed with your take. I always liked but did not love this film. The iconic scene in the beginning, however, w Travolta strutting down a Brooklyn street to Staying Alive is well done and a great beginning to a flawed film.

    • Comment by post author

      I agree that the opening scene was iconic. But ironically, it was scenes like that one that worked at cross purposes with what the film was trying to accomplish. How could a person walk away from the movie feeling, “Okay, Tony’s an immature loser and a low life,” when in the opening scene, he’s sex personified and exudes so much confidence? It was impossible! It’s stuff like this I find so funny about the movie.

      • I would agree if that was the closing scene but since it’s the opening it sets a tone of where Tony is at at that point in his life.

  2. Sunshine

    I think your age is showing. This movie took place during the height of disco, it wasn’t the beginning of disco. Sometimes art reflects reality.

  3. Lou Gubrious

    Oh, but you’ve got it all so very VERY wrong. Audiences got it ALL, my friend, either consciously or subconsciously, loving it or hating it, but unable to be indifferent towards it….for if they were, no one would of remembered it ten seconds after they left the theater, let alone be writing about it, as you are, half a century later (see “Thank God It’s Friday” to understand how very misguided and very confused you are.) The immense and monolithic cultural popularity (and legacy) that exploded out of “Fever” was a product of it’s extraordinary, timeless, and powerful artistry, and it’s brutally honest portrait of the emptiness, horror, and ugly oblivion of contemporary American life that you’ve described, which paradoxically (which is the greatest aspect of it’s genius) allowed Americans to find a profoundly cathartic hope for enlightenment within it’s ruthless sociopolitical condemnation, of which it’s ironic by-product was a towering capitalistic consumption of it’s most superficial aspects. Simply put, one thing would of never happened without the other, and never did again….although many have tried, to no avail.

    • Comment by post author

      Yes ,I got it “so wrong…” which is why for no reason that makes sense, there was a sequel to Saturday Night Fever that has Tony pursuing a career in dance, precisely because audiences were so in love with the idea of him being a dance king that Hollywood thought that it would hit gold if it did a movie in which he has a successful career in dancing…

      • Robin

        And yet, the sequel flopped. So it wasn’t the audiences that got it wrong. It was the studios. Despite Tony worming his way into the finale, the sequel showed him to be an even bigger narcissist douche than the original. Hence, no trilogy.

  4. Lonnie Imgram

    Like Lou, I also think that you got it quite wrong, although I still enjoyed reading your interpretation and opinion.
    I feel that the movie wasn’t deeply flowed at all in terms of its message….it was intended to be a character study of not just Tony, but of a certain aspect of Italian-American culture and class/socio-ethic divides.
    It was meant to portray a type of ugliness and the “glamour” was pure hollow escapism. If some of the glitz seems to carry a dissonance well, it DID represent something transcendent for people like Tony. However tawdry it ultimately turned out to be.
    As far as glamorization of the crass aspects of Tony and his friends’ behavior goes, well that lies solely in the shallowness of people in the audience who failed to recognize the true nature and intent of the movie.

  5. Lonnie Imgram

    *flawed not flowed.
    Thanks .

  6. Lonnie Imgram

    Like Lou, I also think that you got it quite wrong, although I still enjoyed reading your interpretation and opinion.
    I feel that the movie wasn’t deeply flawed at all in terms of its message….it was intended to be a character study of not just Tony, but of a certain aspect of Italian-American culture and class/socio-ethic divides.
    It was meant to portray a type of ugliness and the “glamour” was pure hollow escapism. If some of the glitz seems to carry a dissonance well, it DID represent something transcendent for people like Tony. However tawdry it ultimately turned out to be.
    As far as glamorization of the crass aspects of Tony and his friends’ behavior goes, well that lies solely in the shallowness of people in the audience who failed to recognize the true nature and intent of the movie.

    • Comment by post author

      I got it wrong? Even though the movie caused disco to explode into this huge global cultural phenomenon, spawned a sequel in which we actually see Tony pursue a dream of dancing and even spawned hit TV shows like Dance Fever?

  7. lou gubrious

    “Yes ,I got it “so wrong…” which is why for no reason that makes sense, there was a sequel to Saturday Night Fever that has Tony pursuing a career in dance, precisely because audiences were so in love with the idea of him being a dance king that Hollywood thought that it would hit gold if it did a movie in which he has a successful career in dancing…”

    Minababe, I hate to break it you, but unfortunately, you’ve indeed “got it wrong”….again.

    Hollywood, a place not particularly noted for it’s intellectual insight into much of anything, couldn’t of cared less about whether SNF was an artistic masterpiece for the ages or about dog kibble… what they saw was money, and an unprecedented amount of it. That is the base engine that runs the machinery of that specific factory. Money.
    And with that exact same misguided or misunderstood approach (or is it just some sort of defensiveness on your part in your insistence that there is absolutely no explanation for the 1977 film to have had the effect it had for the specific reasons already mentioned, namely the unique and powerful synthesis of it’s writing, it’s directing, it’s screenplay, it’s brilliant main performances, and it’s powerful themes of social criticism towards the entire panorama of American life and American teenage culture in particular) that made the sequel a disastrous, critically embarrassing, and thoroughly forgotten failure….because it possessed NONE of those things in the precise and extraordinary combination of elements that it did in 1977, even with the same leading man and the same essential setting and milieu. This time around, it was obvious that disco and dancing and Bee Gees music had NOTHING to do with what brought dollars in droves to the 1977 theatre door, time and time again.

    What they were “in love with” was the experience that any true work of art elicits in someone….an affect, a illumination to something previously unconsidered or ignored or unknown or taken for granted, something that re-arranges thought, perspective, and emotional indifference and complacency from within the deepest parts of someone’s psyche, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s essentially what Tony Manero experiences in the movie when Bobby C. senselessly dies:…he sees himself within the ugliness of Bobby’s weak and tragic conformity, identifies with it, and is illuminated towards change, however fragile and impermanent it may or may not be.

    It is, Minabird, what you yourself are struggling with, just like the characters in the film, which is why your fascinated with it, and arguing about it, because you been affected by it…..or else you would of never written about it all, and because it would of held no VALUE for you.

    And it’s no longer a matter of who’s wrong or right. It’s a matter of gaining deeper understanding and insight….which is what “Saturday Night Fever”s message ultimately was, and ultimately why it was so profoundly successful and influential….even to this day.

    • Comment by post author

      I wrote a critique about a FILM. You came on here to start attacking me as a person and casting aspersions on who I am, how I feel and what I think.

      You’re so completely off the rails in everything you’re saying that I don’t even understand what you’re arguing. and I have a suspicion that you don’t, either. The point of this critique is that there were certain things the movie did that undermined its message and in doing so, got the audience to love it for all the wrong reasons and miss the point of what it was trying to do and say.

      Whatever you’re arguing has nothing to do with what I was talking about and the more you respond, the more you reveal yourself as someone not interested in debating the movie at all; what it seems is that you’re just using this entry as part of some self-indulgent exercise where you do nothing but try to “match wits” with the other person to prove how much smarter you are than them.

      So, I repeat: you’re not breaking anything to me. You may think that. But you’re not.

  8. Frank Grampone

    This is an incrediblly accurate and astute review. Much like the first Rocky movie, which was a love story with boxing as its back-story, SNF was a film about troubled teens with dancing only as a sidebar. However, the inconic soundtrack and the dance scenes performed by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and sex-symbols at the time took precedence over the actual storyline which was sad and disturbing. The public’s misread could be the result of the marketing of the film, with billboards and trailers suggesting a dance musical, much like the Travolta follow-up, Grease. In any event, it remains an iconic movie because of it’s cultural impact whether its reveal of inner city youth or becuse it sent Disco into the stratosphere. Regardless of the audience’s misinterpretaion, what is clear is that the film’s true intent and storyline clearly outlived Disco itself.

  9. Geoff Beran

    Yes, this is a terrific deconstruction of Saturday Night Fever, yet the conclusion makes assumptions about the original theater-going audiences that I don’t think hold water. In short, audiences were much smarter than they are being given credit for. As Frank says above, the marketing and the soundtrack sales went a long way to making this film popular with people who were too young to even have seen the R-Rated film, which is why months later, it was recut into a cleaner PG, so they could sell more tickets.

  10. First off, as someone else has noted here, disco was absolutely, definitely, irrefutably a “thing” before Saturday Night Fever came along. So let’s agree you at least got that wrong, ok? Secondly, the movie takes place in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, so not one person at the 2001 disco is wearing designer clothes. Unlike the stars who partied at Studio 54, these guys are all decked out in cheap, polyester knockoffs. A very important distinction, which – let’s admit again – you got wrong. Thirdly, you’re reading of Tony Manero is pretty limited, to say the least, as there are multiple and very clearly drawn moments in the movie, mostly in his scenes with Stephanie, when it’s obvious he wants more in life than what he gets from his family and friends, and that his racist, misogynistic, homophobic ways could just be a side effect of his deadbeat environment. And your take on the disco experience is also greatly uninformed, but I’ll stop here cuz I like your spirit and it’s great that you’re keeping up a blog and all. 🙂

  11. Comment by post author

    1. Saturday Night Fever was the movie that made disco an explosive global phenomenon, to the point where demographics who ordinarily wouldn’t have cared less about it were now going to the disco or were being exposed to it on a regular basis. That’s why there was a major “Disco Sucks” backlash not too soon after this movie came out. Disco had become so widespread that people began pushing back against it.

    2. With all due respect, I don’t think you really know much about fashion and working class fashion. I say that because since the 1950s, the working class have established several very well known and established subcultures based around designer clothing, as an expression of their desire to one day become middle or upper class or seen as “just as good as” as the upper classes. This expression is what’s known as “aspirational”.

    For example, in the 1960s, working class London youths created Mod, a scene in which they invested heavily in so-called “continental” designer clothing.

    Decades later, so-called “chavs” (working class living in the US equivalent of housing projects) started wearing Burberry, an exclusive designer label for the rich. Chavs had so successfully appropriated the label that Burberry almost went under and had to go through great lengths to restore its image:

    Tony Manero was a stereotype of a similar subculture called “guido”. Guidos were working class Italian-American men with a macho attitude who nevertheless dressed in a very flashy, aspirational way (complete with gold chains). The modern day guido subculture eventually became replaced with so-called “Jersey Shore” crowd, and the members of the TV show were actually bribed by Abercrombie and Fitch to stop wearing its clothing, precisely because it was their go-to brand and the company was worried that it would start losing high end customers:

    So, when you try to “correct” me about the working class not wearing designer clothing, you’re correcting me based on the assumption that the working class can’t afford or would never buy designer clothing. Not only have they been doing that for decades, they’ve created subcultures based around the practice. Again, this practice is what’s known as “aspirational”, as when a guy who can barely afford anything buys a luxury car on credit or splurges on a ridiculously expensive home theater system.

    That’s neither here nor there anywhere. Much of the disco era was about dressing to impress and the way that you did it was to dress as the middle and upper classes were. Whether you achieved that look by buying an authentic Halston or a knockoff of a Halston is immaterial, and it seems to be missing the point to argue otherwise.

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