America’s Best Dance Party: 40 years since ‘Saturday Night Fever’

Alice George in Smithsonian:

JohnFor many Americans of a certain age, the film that provides the singular most refreshing dose of 1970s nostalgia is director John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever. In its most memorable scene, John Travolta, as the smooth-talking Tony Manero, swaggers down the street to the sounds of the Bee Gees’ incomparable hit “Stayin’ Alive;” and the audience travels back to when the four-year-old Twin Towers in the Manhattan skyline evoked only American success with no hint of tragedy. Powered by music, machismo and masterful footwork, the gritty low-budget film lured crowds to theatres, record stores and discos after it premiered 40 years ago this month. At a cost of just $6 million, this new incarnation of the traditional movie musical grossed more than $100 million domestically and $300 million worldwide. In fact, the film earned $31 million in its first 31 days. It was the third highest seller that year, surpassed only by George Lucas’s Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And the soundtrack, which sold 30 million copies, topped the album charts for six months and set a record as the biggest-selling album ever. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller subsequently broke that record.)

Saturday Night Fever’s long life in the American consciousness springs “primarily from a brilliant soundtrack that connected vast audiences with infectious, anthemic and imminently danceable hooks,” says the Smithsonian’s John Troutman, curator of American music at the National Museum of American History. “The inner tension that Travolta captured in Tony Manero’s underdog, working-class character—his stunted, bleak and occasionally dark emotional development weighing against his earnest aspirations and locally celebrated triumphs on the dance floor—came across to audiences throughout the country as not only relatable, but intensely believable,” says Troutman.

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