Saturday Night Fever

May 13th, 2009

Saturday Night Fever

It’s not about the music. It’s not about the clothes.

It’s all about the bridge.

Saturday Night Fever should have been a throwaway movie about a fad. Instead it uses the disco scene as a backdrop to the universal story of someone trying to escape to something better. Tony Manero is stuck in a place where his parents have one vision of what he should be (like his older brother, a priest who ends up leaving the clergy, well on his own path) while finding happiness only when he’s dancing and no way to translate his drive for that into other parts of his life. He has friends who are racist, misogynist, and homophobic – though I suspect that comes from their frustration of being locked in by a perceived lack of opportunities. That’s certainly the case for Tony – he wants something more than a job at a paint store and living with his parents. Enter the bridge.

Tales of yearning play a major role in American culture. Ever since the days when someone actually had the ability to move out West and start over with a clean slate and make something of themselves, we’ve been raised that everyone has the opportunity to be successful. To Americans, there will always be an open West waiting for those with the determination to exploit its riches.

In Saturday Night Fever, the West is Manhattan and the journey is the bridges crossing the East River. Tony understands this almost before he is consciously aware of it. There is a scene where he effortlessly recites trivia about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge* as if he’s been quietly saving up whatever knowledge might be needed for the day he crosses a bridge and moves onto a new life. He knows he has to leave, and it takes a certain tiredness, and a girl, for him to go.

My life doesn’t even come close to paralleling that of anything represented in Saturday Night Fever, except for the urge to leave home. Even if I can’t say I’ve accomplished anything significant yet, the act of leaving Iowa and coming to Boston was one of the most important events in my life and was necessary for my own personal journey.

I had to cross the bridge.


There are plenty of other interesting things about the movie, and I suggest you read Roger Ebert’s original review and his revisit for the addition to his Great Movies list.

Other interesting things to note:

  • This film came out in 1977, a crazy year for New York City. A heat wave, a crime wave, Son of Sam, a blackout, and a World Series. For a first-hand account, I highly recommend Michele’s (aka @abigvictorytale of her experience that summer. She also has a great story about being on the rock side of the Disco wars.
  • The much-parodied opening sequence of Tony walking down the street is exactly how you introduce a character like Tony in a movie- we learn that he’s always showing off his good looks and style, is really trying to use the moves to pick up women, yet he works at a paint store.
  • Also, we’ve all done that walk. Feel free to use any music, but “Stayin’ Alive” is always the best choice for strutting down the street.

*This is a bridge that goes to Staten Island and not Manhattan, which makes no sense in the context of the movie. The only reason I can think that it was used for the shot was because it’s a nice shot and is the same bridge used in several other scenes.

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