He was just another juvenile delinquent in a television sit-com, before he became a superstar playing a nobody by day who blossoms at night on the dance floor. John Travolta strutted his stuff as Tony Manero, a paint-store clerk who dons a dashing white suit to ride the disco craze out of his dead-end existence in Saturday Night Fever. The film premiered on December 14, 1977, already guaranteed success thanks to its soundtrack, released months before the movie.
The disco songs recorded by the Bee Gees (including “Stayin’ Alive”) were all over the pop charts, sparking intense interest in the film before its release, with the film then popularizing the entire soundtrack after its release – the first (but certainly not the last) use of cross-media marketing.
Travolta plays Tony Manero, a Brooklyn paint-store clerk who’d give anything to break out of his humdrum life. The movie follows his foray, along with his partner Stephanie, into the Manhattan world of flashing lights and sweaty bodies. Disco and the culture of the disco era also star in the movie – the symphonic orchestration over a steady beat and disciplined choreography, the high style in clothing, and the sexuality of it all.
“Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines,” said movie critic Gene Siskel, who bought Travolta’s famous white suit at a charity auction. “He struts like crazy.”
The film had an R-rating when it was originally released in 1978. Several years later it was edited down to PG with naughty bits removed to make it more “family-friendly” and suitable for television.
Some critics complain that the film was regressive, refashioning disco, which began as an underground social scene for gays, blacks and Latinos, as a vehicle for white masculinity and the heterosexual hunt for a willing partner. Picky, picky, picky.