“Saturday Night Fever,” a sparkling 1970s silver-screen period piece that transcends generations with its pulsating soundtrack, dramatic disco dance scenes and timeless teenage coming-of-age story, made its world premiere on this day in history, Dec. 14, 1977.
The movie debuted at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles before enjoying national distribution two days later.
“Well-cast, well-acted and well-directed, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ earned positive reviews from many critics, including the late Gene Siskel, who called it his favorite film ever,” writes History.com.
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“But whatever its other cinematic merits, even the film’s strongest proponents would agree that it was the pulsing disco soundtrack of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ that made it a work of lasting historical significance.”
The movie opens with one of the great “a star is born” moments in Hollywood history.
John Travolta, lean, handsome and just 23 years old, with a majestic feathery pompadour, plays nightclub king Tony Manero.
He struts gloriously down the streets of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, wearing an open-collar red shirt, black slacks and a black leather jacket, to the sway of the soundtrack title tune “Stayin’ Alive,” as the opening credits roll.
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“Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk/I’m a woman’s man no time to talk,” the Bee Gees sing as the heels of Manero’s shoes click on the asphalt and his arms swing to the beat.
“One minute into ‘Saturday Night Fever’ you know this picture is onto something, that it knows what it’s talking about,” Siskel, the celebrated movie critic, raved of the production.
The movie opens with one of the great ‘a star is born’ moments in Hollywood history.
“Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines. He struts like crazy.”
Travolta was a goofy sitcom star to that point, known for his role as dim-wit Vinnie Barbarino in the television hit “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
“Saturday Night Fever” made him an international celebrity.
Manero was an uncultured, black-sheep son of a struggling working-class Italian-American family who ascended to nobility on the dance floor of 2001 Odyssey, a real Bay Ridge nightclub.
The infectious soundtrack featured a string of radio hits from KC and the Sunshine Band (“Boogie Shoes”), Broadway star-turned-disco diva Yvonne Elliman (“If I Can’t Have You”) and landmark period hit-maker The Trammps (“Disco Inferno”).
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The album was carried by a string of classic dance-club tunes by Australian act the Bee Gees including, in addition to the title track, “Night Fever,” “Jive Talkin’” and “How Deep is Your Love,” among others.
The “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack remains one of the top-selling albums of all time, with more than 40 million units sold, according to Billboard.
“Saturday Night Fever,” the movie, was the first in a trio of Hollywood hits, buoyed by dancing and best-selling soundtracks, that made Travolta one of the biggest stars of the era.
It was followed in rapid succession by his roles as high school bad boy Danny Zuko in “Grease” (1978) and Houston roughneck Bud Davis in “Urban Cowboy” (1980).
“Saturday Night Fever,” it turns out, was a pop-culture sensation that never should have been.
The movie was based on an article by British reporter Nik Cohn, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” that appeared in New York Magazine.
“One minute into ‘Saturday Night Fever’ you know this picture is onto something.” — Gene Siskel
“Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge,” Cohn wrote on June 7, 1976.
“Everybody knew him. When Saturday night came ’round and he walked into 2001 Odyssey, all the other faces automatically fell back before him, cleared a space for him to float in, right at the very center of the dance floor.”
The scene was recreated, almost down to the dance moves, in the movie, with “Vincent” replaced by Travolta’s Manero.
The Brit later admitted he fabricated the entire story after witnessing a fight outside the nightclub one night.
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“My story was a fraud,” Cohn told The New York Times in 1996.
“I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the ’60s, a one-time king of Goldhawk road.”
“Saturday Night Fever” was based on a magazine article by British reporter Nik Cohn that proved to be a fraud.
Despite its manufactured origins, the story has stood the test of time.
“‘Saturday Night Fever’ has endured … because its narrative is as supple as the 23-year-old John Travolta was,” Entertainment Weekly wrote in an insightful 1990s retrospective, soon after the fraud was revealed.
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It’s “the story of a working-class palooka who thinks he’s got only one special thing — his dancing — and his struggle to understand if being a man means using it or transcending it, remaining a boy or growing up, behaving as a lover, a lout, or a gentleman.”