By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: He’s a disco star.
This film is based on a 1976 story that was published in New York Magazine entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn, which for many years was considered a factual account of the disco trends of the young people at the time who frequented the disco 2001 Odyssey nightclub, but it later turned out, through the confession of its author, to have been totally fabricated. The story here centers on Tony (John Travolta) who still lives with his parents while working for low wages at a Brooklyn paint store, but longing for a more exciting existence. Despite being a ‘nobody’ during the week on Saturday nights he’s a star as he takes to the disco floor and has all the women flocking to him. Annette (Donna Pescow) is one of those women, but Tony finds her too unattractive and instead has eyes for Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) who he wants as his dance partner in order to win a contest.
From the ads and promotions you’d think this was nothing more than a lightweight teeny bopper romance looking to take advantage of the current disco trend, but the film is much more than that. In fact the dance sequences are boring and thankfully director John Badham keeps these segments contained although I would’ve cut back on them even more. The real essence of the film is Tony’s relationship with his friends, family and world as a whole. The film works as a terrific composite of what life in Brooklyn during the ‘70s amongst the teens and young adults was really like as they try to forge their way into young adulthood while fighting to find their place in it.
Travolta gives an outstanding performance mainly because he’s one of those actors who isn’t afraid to expose the vulnerabilities of the characters that he plays as Tony isn’t a completely likable person and many times acts quite arrogant and callous, which leaves the viewer feeling like they’ve seen an unfiltered portrait of a real person with all the edges showing instead of just a manufactured image.
Pescow is great in support. The image of her holding out a hand full of condoms is the one thing I’ve remembered vividly from the movie from when I first saw it over twenty years ago and the scene of where she is assaulted in the back seat of a car by Tony’s friends is genuinely heart breaking.
My only quibble with her is the moment where Tony informs her that he is choosing a different dance partner for the contest and she immediately breaks down crying. My belief is that most people because of personal pride will not wear their emotional vulnerabilities that openly especially if they are downtrodden like her character. Instead I think she would’ve responded to the news in a sort of aloof/defiant way like saying ‘fine if you don’t want me then I don’t want you’ before walking away and then crying about it later in private.
Gorney’s performance was the one that I really didn’t like as her put-on Brooklyn accent is too affected. With Pescow you could tell it was the genuine thing as she was from the region originally, but Gorney was born in Beverly Hills and attended college in Pittsburgh, so her attempts at putting on an accent was not needed or warranted and made her character seem too much at Tony’s working class level when I thought the idea was to show that she wasn’t.
As for her relationship with Tony I liked the concept that these two were genuine opposites, but I wished the movie had played this up more. She’s initially cold towards Tony and rejects his advances and then a few days later without him having done anything differently she’s suddenly warmed up to him. I would’ve liked some situation created where she was forced to hook-up with Tony as a dance partner because her original partner took ill or something and then had the frostiness between them continue and melt away only when they are on the dance floor.
The ending is a bit limp. The fact that the two don’t end up getting into a long term romantic relationship, but instead agree to be ‘just friends’ is good as too many movies with this type of formula always seem to want to strive for the ideal love scenario, but in most real-world cases that just isn’t practical and these two had too much that was not in common and getting past those things would’ve proved futile.
However, the dance contest is a letdown as the film introduces a Puerto Rican couple who dance better than Tony and Stephanie, but Tony is still awarded the trophy supposedly because of racism, but why throw in this plot point so late? We’ve been following the trials and tribulations of Tony and Stephanie the entire way through not the Puerto Rican couple who we know nothing about. If the movie wanted to make a statement about racism at the club it should’ve been brought out much earlier and not at the very last minute when it becomes essentially pointless.
End of Spoiler Alert!
Overall though it’s a great movie that deserves its classic status as the characters and dialogue are richly textured and the film makes its message through subtle visual means without having to telegraph it. However, the PG-rated version, which was released two years later in an attempt to reel in the teen audience, sanitizes the story to the point that it takes out the heart of the film and should be avoided.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: December 12, 1977
Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes (R-rated version) 1 Hour 52 Minutes (PG-rated version) 2 Hours 2 Minutes (Director’s cut)
Director: John Badham
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube