Disco was a trend that swept the United States back in the 1970s. When many said that disco was dead, others said, “absolutely not!” and proved it by creating an iconic film, Saturday Night Fever. No other film honors the disco theme like this movie! Some might even argue that disco stayed alive because of this movie.
Whether you want to keep the trend moving or you just love to watch John Travolta shake what his mama gave him, Saturday Night Fever embodies the spirit of the disco trend. This movie was based on “true stories” that were not quite that, and it produced a soundtrack that the world would never forget.
John Travolta’s character was just a clerk at a paint store who took the dance floor by storm every weekend. The story took place in Brooklyn, New York, and his character, Tony Manero, was still living at home with his parents. He represented everyone with hopes of breaking out on their own and doing their own thing.
His character wanted to gain respect and credit. Even more, than 40 years after the film was released, this theme continues to hold firm. People want to grow and accomplish things for themselves. It’s no shock to hear that this continues to be a theme throughout the ages. Beyond this, the film helped skyrocket John Travolta’s career!
The Fabricated Article
This movie was loosely based on a New York Magazine article published in 1976 by Nik Cohn. The article was titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which told the story of a young man named Vincent, who lived a pretty average life at the time. Though he had some of the same struggles as young men his age, the story depicted an “everyman” with a secret.
Vincent was just like any other guy: working-class, finding his footing in life. His story was not unlike others who found peace in their newfound passions. He loved to dance but had some issues to overcome in his personal life. There was one other important factor, though – Vincent was not a real person, but rather a fabrication!
The Fake Story
Two decades after his initial story was released, which was said to have inspired this gem of the 1970s, the author of the famed 1976 New York magazine article behind Saturday Night Fever made a troubling confession. The writer Nik Cohn admitted that the story was fake. “The problem was that my story was a fraud,” he wrote in The Mail and The Guardian.
“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 the Goldhawk Road,” Cohn wrote.
Say Goodbye to Credibility, Nik Cohn
“Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” ended up appearing with cartoons, rather than photos, along with a disclaimer: “Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved. Only the names of the main characters have been changed.”
Despite this major hiccup, Cohn continued to write for New York Magazine. In 1983, his lies and other crimes finally caught up to him. Nik Cohn was indicted on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges. He imported $4 million worth of heroin. Wow, what an unexpected turn of events! That’s totally wild.
John Travolta Was a Surprise
When Australian movie legend Robert Stigwood signed John Travolta, it was the talk of the town. However, it was not at all for good reasons. He signed Travolta to a three-movie contract for $1 million smackeroos. It was strange to many in the industry for this esteemed producer to give a guy like Travolta a chance without more experience under his belt.
Travolta’s biggest role at the time was as Vinnie Barbarino on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Many thought that the transition from television to film would be impossible, mostly because performers had rarely done it. However, Stigwood knew what he was doing. He once managed the Beatles, as well as some successful West End productions like Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Grease.
Travolta Did Not Love Disco
Though he played someone who lived and died for his disco fever, John Travolta did not feel the passion himself. When the movie was filming, disco fever was already heading out of New York. He was not interested in disco in the slightest. He told all in an interview discussing the movie, and wait until you hear his comments…
“It was on its way out. The clothing I wore in the movie, the polyester this and that was all finished when we did the movie. I thought I was doing, honestly, an art film — really, that it was a slice of life about a small group of people in Brooklyn that were obsessed with disco dancing and that I had a very interesting character to play. I did not think it would be a big commercial movie at all!”
The Costume Hunt
Travolta reminisced about his experiences tracking down appropriate costumes for a trend that was on its way out. “The clothing for Saturday Night Fever, I had to go to the Village [in New York], in the back of the store and tops of shelves and pull-out boxes because they hadn’t sold those pants in three years. They hadn’t sold those shirts in two years,” he shared.
He further elaborated on his outfits. “That suit was kind of a classic suit, so that was being avidly sold, but that’s how out of date we thought all that was when we were making it. I thought I was doing kind of a little retro movie, and then it became like it had never existed before.”
Travolta Had a Passion for Dancing
Even if he did not love the disco trend, he did love dancing. This should be relatively obvious from his performance in this film, as well as his other epic performance in Grease. His love for dancing came long before his career in film even began. While on set with his later film, the remake of Hairspray, he got candid about his love for movement.
“I think my first turn-on to dance was James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy when I was five or six,” he shared. “I used to try to imitate him in front of the television set. I liked black dancing better than white dancing. I used to watch Soul Train, and what I wanted to create was a Soul Train feel in Saturday Night Fever.”
Perfecting the Brooklyn Accent
When Donna Pescow landed her role as Annette in Saturday Night Fever, the actress had yet to work. She was only 22 years old and had never even been to a discotheque! She struck out on her own and spent two years studying theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. With her education there, she somehow stripped herself of the Brooklyn accent she came with!
When she landed the role, producers told her that she needed to do whatever she could to get her authentic accent back. The casting director told her to move back home and hang out with her parents. Shirley Rich, the casting director, apparently told her that, “you sound like you don’t come from anywhere!”
Not the Bee Gees, Yet!
So many of the most important scenes from the movie involve Tony and Annette dancing to songs that we now know as hits from the iconic musical group, the Bee Gees. Some of these hits include “You Should Be Dancin” and “More Than a Woman.” As it turned out, the Bee Gees had less to do with the movie than you might expect.
The Bee Gees and their music were not added to the film until the post-production process. The Gibb brothers, better known for their musical stylings as the Bee Gees, were recording a new album overseas and were nearly not involved. When Travolta was shaking what he had, he was really dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs!
How Did the Bee Gees Get Involved?
The Gibb brothers (or would you say, the brothers Gibb?) were not involved until the very end. “We were recording our new album in the north of France. And we’d written about and recorded about four or five songs for the new album when [producer Robert Stigwood] rang from L.A.” they shared.
Their conversation with Stigwood continued: “We’re putting together this little film, low budget, called Tribal Rites of a Saturday Night. Would you have any songs on hand?” Robin Gibb recalled in the book The Bee Gees. “And we said, ‘Look, we can’t. We haven’t any time to sit down and write for a film.’ We didn’t know what it was about.” When they finally agreed, they cranked out the whole soundtrack in a weekend!
Robert De Niro Had an Impact
Though esteemed actor Robert De Niro would never be caught dead in a disco film, Travolta admitted to being inspired by De Niro’s ability to adapt and learn skills he needed to give an authentic performance. While De Niro wasn’t a dancer, he probably would have crushed it if he were!
“De Niro dropped the gauntlet. He learned how to play saxophone for a year, he learned how to become a boxer, and that was the feeling in the air if you wanted to take your craft seriously. It was beyond just the standard fare. You really became the best at the thing that you were supposed to do,” Travolta shared in a later interview.
Perfecting His Moves
Travolta truly wanted to be the best of the best. He was inspired to be the best dancer out there and channeled other legends from the world of performance and entertainment in his journey to becoming the best. In an interview, he stated, “I took about nine months of my life, and everyday I danced to become what I thought was a great local disco dance.”
Many of Travolta’s best disco moves came from Deney Terrio, who was best known for his spot on the TV show Dance Fever. Lester Wilson, a gay nightclub legend with a history of working with some of the greatest artists of all time, both on Broadway and in London’s theater world, was also given credit for helping Travolta get to be the best of the best!
Passion for the Craft
Travolta reflected fondly on his time training with Lester Wilson. “[He was] such an interesting guy. He taught me what he called his ‘hang time.’ He would smoke a cigarette to greet the day, and he infused my dancing with African American rhythm. That’s not where his love for Wilson stopped…
“I’m the kind of dancer who needs thought and construction—an idea—before I dance. I need an internal story,” he stated. “Lester would put on some music, and he would say, ‘Move with me, mother***er—move with me!'” I guess that’s an effective way of learning!
Soundtrack for the Ages
Their soundtrack was one of the most popular in movie history. The soundtrack managed to gain some well-deserved recognition as the best-selling soundtrack of all time, up until Whitney Houston’s soundtrack for The Bodyguard knocked theirs down to the number two slot in 1992.
This soundtrack managed to land a Grammy for best album! This was the very first film soundtrack to win this honor. They must have been super excited and pleased to hear it. Since then, there have only been two other soundtracks to win this esteemed title. Yes, one of them was the album that knocked them out of the number one spot – Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard.
Behind the Actor Was Real Pain
No one wants to lose a loved one, especially not during a high-stakes period of life. While filming Saturday Night Fever, Travolta learned some life-changing news. His girlfriend at the time, an actress named Diana Hyland, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It took a toll on Travolta, big time.
Things took a turn for the worst, and, unfortunately, his girlfriend passed away from breast cancer. When Travolta was dealing with the hardship, pop icon and artist Andy Warhol happened to be on a flight with the star and recorded what he saw. He wrote about it in his journal, and you’ll never guess what he said…
The Journal Entry
In Andy Warhol’s diary, he reflected on what he had seen. “John Travolta kept going to the bathroom, coming out with his eyes bright red, drinking orange juice and liquor in a paper cup, and he put his head in a pillow and started crying,” Warhol wrote.
“I saw him reading a script, too, so I thought he was acting, really cute and sensitive-looking, very tall…. You can see the magic in him. I asked the stewardess why he was crying, and she said, ‘death in the family,’ so I thought it was a mother or father until I picked up the paper at home and found out that it was Diana Hyland, who’d died of cancer at forty-one, soap-opera queen, his steady date.”
The Scene That Rose From Pain
Everyone in the cast and crew knew the pain that Travolta was going through. Some tried to help him as best as they could – some definitely did more than others. In fact, one of the on-screen moments of intimacy came from his costar trying to console him, and it seemed to work… at least a bit.
Karen Lynn Gorney, who played Travolta’s on-screen girlfriend, reflected on a moment in which she connected with Travolta and did what she could to make him feel better. “I remember the scene at the Verrazano Bridge when I lean over and kiss him. The poor thing was suffering so, and that kiss was totally spontaneous. That wasn’t Tony and Stephanie — that was because I really saw he was hurting.”
Travolta was seemingly the only one in his family to have a spot in Hollywood with his name on it. Did you know that some of his family members, specifically his mom and sister, managed to land supporting roles in Saturday Night Fever? It seems that this film became a family affair!
Travolta’s family members played very minor supporting roles at the very beginning of the movie. His mother, Helen, played a woman who was waiting for a can of paint. His sister, Annie, plays a pizza girl who asks him how many slices he wants. “One or two, Tony?” to which he replied, “two, two is good.” I always go for two slices when I can!
That Terrifying Scene
One particular scene from the movie stands out to many, more than any other. One of the guys that Tony spends his time with, a member of his “entourage,” you might say, climbs up to the narrow pillars of the Verrazano Bridge. Tony and his friends beg their friend to come back to safety, but he declines and meets an untimely fate.
Tony climbed onto the railing to save his friend but was not so lucky. His friend fell to his death despite his friends’ best efforts. As it turns out, this scene was as terrifying for the cast and crew to film as it looked on screen!
Filming Something Terrifying
When they filmed this scene, it shook everyone to their core. They were pretty terrified, but some of the actors just wanted to get the scene over with successfully. Actor Paul Pape, who played Double J, reflected on his experience filming the troubling scene; “They were talking about putting a guy wire on us, and I said, ‘No.'”
His reflection seemed way less troubling than it appeared. “I just jumped up on the cable to show them I could swing around. There was no safety net. I was [hundreds] of feet above the water. All that was improvised—it wasn’t planned. I just jumped up there and said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s get it done.'” Someone seems pretty fearless!
Fears From Cameramen
If actor Paul Pape’s response was not what you expected, then the camera operator’s response might be more your speed. The camera operator sported only his handheld camera and stood atop a bridge beam. He just had someone holding onto his waist. That is truly horrifying.
“I was young. You couldn’t sense danger then. But you’re 600 feet off the water. I had my camera in my hand, and we just did it. We wanted to show Hollywood we could make great films.” Hollywood clearly had some questionable safety standards back in 1977; hopefully, they have moved onto safer practices!
The Iconic Pose
When you think of the movie poster for Saturday Night Fever, you probably think of an image of John Travolta sporting his disco uniform. He’s wearing a white suit; he’s got one arm pointed up, and one pointed down. His chest is puffed, and he looks like the king of the dance floor. Want to know what the secret is behind this pose?
This pose was not choreographed at all. It came as a result of a long day in which Travolta wanted to just turn his brain off for the rest of the day. It was an afterthought. “It was a 14- or 15-hour day, and the photographer said, ‘Do you have anything else in you?’ And I said, ‘Oh geez. Okay, how about this?'” Travolta recalled.
He Was Shocked by the Poster
“The next thing I know was I’m looking at photographs about three months later for poster ideas, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they picked that shot.’ I didn’t know it would create the iconic figure that it ultimately did.” Travolta unintentionally made one of the most iconic poses in movie history.
Decades after the film was released, Travolta posted a photo on Instagram sporting his pose and sharing his excitement for the continued success of the movie soundtrack. He shared an enthusiastic caption: “Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother, you’re stayin’ alive!! Thank you, everyone!! I just received my 16 million certified Platinum U.S. RIAA Award for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, 45 million worldwide!”
Filming in Brooklyn Was Tough
Brooklyn in the 1970s was a very different place than it is today. The movie was filmed in Bay Ridge, the former home of the 2001 Odyssey, the discotheque where everything takes place. The cast and crew ran into many problems filming: a combination of crowds, crime, and many other challenges.
The cast and crew learned that they would need to pay off certain locals to get the security they needed to finish their project successfully. Not long after they started filming at the dance venue, they were hit with chaos. “I got a phone call from the production manager, and he said, ‘This is chaos!’ I came out, and there were l0,000 kids on the streets, and we only have four security guys,” one staffer said.
The Chaos Continued
Executive producer Kevin McCormick further reflected on the chaos that ensued from the neighborhood’s excitement. “We had to shut down for a couple of hours while we just regrouped and tried to figure out a way to make it work. It was the first time that we actually had a sense of who John was.”
They eventually succumbed to the crowds; they were making it absolutely impossible to get any work done. “There was no place you could point the camera without seeing 15,000 people. We’d have to put out fake call sheets and get out there at 5:30 in the morning.”
The Screenplay Writer Was a Bit Nutty
The adaptation of the initial magazine article was written by a man named Norman Wexler. He was known for being “quirky,” to put things lightly. He was known for coming in to pitch a script or just to have a regular meeting and would start giving out chocolates and nylons to secretaries. That doesn’t sound too weird, does it? Well, it turns out there is more…
Karen Lynn Gorney, who played Travolta’s love interest in the film, recalled some strange instances. She talked about how he had bipolar disorder, and if he ever went off his medication, he would turn manic. She reflected on one episode in which he bit a stewardess on his flight and another in which he threatened to assassinate President Richard Nixon.
Academy in Flight
No shock that this movie made a splash, earning Oscar nominations for the star, John Travolta. He was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, which is quite the honor. When he received his nomination, he was on a flight back from Mexico, where he was celebrating his birthday with friends. He was on a flight and recalled that he could not get back to Los Angeles fast enough, or rather before nominations came out.
He went through customs and recalled the anticipation of waiting to see if anyone was there waiting for him. “I arrived at Los Angeles airport, and there was a custom smoked glass type of apparatus. I thought that if there’s no one there, it means I didn’t get nominated, but if there’s a group there, then I did. So, I ran across there, and all my friends are there,” he said. “They were cheering; everything was in slow motion.”
There Were Two Versions of the Film
Back in the day, so many people had an issue with even the slightest amount of sensitive content. The first version, the original released in 1977, was R-rated for some racy content. There was profanity. There were naked people. There was a slight amount of violence… that didn’t work for everyone. So, producers did something about it.
A second version of the film was released but without all of these “questionable” themes. Stigwood was reportedly not a big fan of the second version. In an interview, he expressed his disappointment, saying, “It doesn’t have the power, or the impact, of the original R-rated edition.”
Disco Was Dying
Disco can definitely thank Saturday Night Fever for expanding its lifespan by at least a few years. The style was popular through the mid-1970s, and a few disco tunes managed to top the Billboard charts. By the time that Saturday Night Fever had come out, the trend was already on its way out.
Disco managed to “stay alive” a little bit longer, thanks to this movie and its soundtrack. It ended up spreading throughout mainstream culture in America, becoming more successful in middle America than it had been before. I guess disco had a little more to say and was not ready to peace out just yet!
An Ode to Rocky
Initially, this film was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen. He is the same guy who directed Rocky. Unfortunately, that fell through just a few weeks prior to filming, and Avildsen was replaced by John Badham. Though this movie didn’t have the same director as Rocky, there are other odes to the legendary film.
On Tony’s bedroom wall, a Rocky poster hangs clear as day. It makes sense that he would love that movie and look up to someone who also marched to the beat of his own drum. Finally, the third connection: The sequel to Saturday Night Fever was Staying Alive, which came out in 1983. The film was directed by none other than Sylvester Stallone!
Travolta’s Fame Got in the Way
Despite the weird transition from sitcom stardom to feature films, Travolta was already well on his way to becoming the big star he was destined to become. He was a teen heartthrob on Welcome Back, Kotter, and had a funny catchphrase: “up your nose with a rubber hose.” He had a firm fanbase, who rushed to see him when he filmed in their neighborhood.
The streets swarmed with squealing teenaged girls, teenaged boys who resented Travolta for his desirability, and many other onlookers. Director Badham said that “by noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home.” They ended up having to film in the middle of the night, or at the crack of dawn!
Welcome to White Castle
A scene in the movie has Tony and his group of friends going to eat at a White Castle. They were loud and boisterous, but it turns out they were in a real White Castle. The employees of White Castle depicted in the scene were not actors and were actually just told to go about their normal business.
The director apparently told his actors to just cut loose and do whatever they wanted in the burger establishment. He told them to surprise the White Castle employees however they needed to. Their famous reaction on screen to the rowdiness was when Paul Pape, also known as Double J, “pulled down his pants and mooned the entire staff of White Castle.”
The Cab Ride That Changed Everything
Filling the role of Stephanie, Tony’s dance partner was particularly difficult. Many, many women auditioned – and by many, we mean hundreds of women – but none seemed quite right. Enter 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney, an actress aiming to break into the industry, who just so happened to meet the right person.
She happened to share a cab with a stranger one evening. That stranger was producer Robert Stigwood’s nephew. When he mentioned that his uncle was working on a new film, she made a joke asking if she was in it. Luckily, his nephew submitted Gorney for the role, and it all worked out in her favor!
They Made Up Their Own Dances
Imagine depending on someone who just… lets you down. You hire someone to do a job, and they don’t show up. That puts you in a weird position, right? One day, the movie choreographer didn’t realize he needed to be on set, and it left them in a tight spot, needing to finish their choreography and learn their moves.
A little under an hour into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the “tango hustle,” a dance that they made up quickly because of the choreographer’s mishap. They invented this out of necessity, and it is no surprise that this move didn’t really have a huge impact on fans.
The Composer’s Dilemma
Initially, while filming Tony and Stephanie’s rehearsal scene roughly 30 minutes into the movie, the director chose to use the song “Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs. They filmed the scene (along with dialogue) with the song playing in the background. This was not how things were supposed to be done.
As soon as the scene wrapped, Boz Scaggs’ representation reached out to Badham and his team to let them know that they could not use the song. Scaggs was planning a disco project himself and couldn’t have the overlap. Everything had to be redone for the scene, and the composer, David Shire, needed to write something instrumental quickly. His piece is what we hear in the movie today.
The Iconic Suit
When they were filming, men’s suits were typically black. That is what they anticipated when putting the costumes together. The movie’s costume designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein, convinced the producers and Travolta that the suit should be white. The meaning behind this is kind of shocking!
Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them to make the suit white to act as a symbol. Tony spends the movie on his own path to enlightenment. Another reason for the white suit was a bit more practical because a dark-colored suit would not photograph well in a dark discotheque.
The original white suit was nothing special; costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a clothing store for men in Brooklyn. This suit is actually three identical suits, so they wouldn’t have to change Travolta’s costume when he got all sweaty, so they could keep filming.
Two of the three suits went missing after the film, but the remaining one was signed by Travolta and sold at a charity auction. Initially, it was purchased in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who was a big fan of the movie and paid only $2,000 for it. In 1995, he struck gold when he sold it to an anonymous bidder through Christie’s auction house for a whopping $145,500!
The Future Is Bright
If this movie taught us anything, it is that the future is bright and that you have to forge your own path. Travolta went through all the emotions any star possibly could while filming, and it goes to show that he truly is so talented to seamlessly work through the hardships he was met with at the time.
This movie helped the Bee Gees become the group we know them as now and helped launch Travolta’s career as a god of movement. This film certainly made all the difference in keeping disco alive and well; even years later, we look to it as a reference for the heart of the disco trend!