It’s strange how perceptions can change over time – my main memory of this film, & one I think most people share, is of John Travolta’s naff but spectacular dancing in a 70’s disco, & the equally naff but strangely appealing soundtrack, led by the Bee Gees. This is what made this film so famous & a symbol of the decade, but beyond the glitz & the dancing this is actually quite a gritty, adult movie.
Travolta plays Tony Manero, a 19-year-old Italian-American living in a downmarket part of Brooklyn, New York. In a low-paying, no prospects job working in a DIY shop, picked on by his parents in a poor, dysfunctional family, his one joy in life is dancing in the local disco – where he is King.
There he meets Stephanie (Lynn Gorney), & convinces her to become his dance partner for the disco’s upcoming dance competition. To him, Stephanie is sophisticated & wealthy: with an office job where she gets to mix with famous actors & pop stars, & living in a large apartment in an upmarket part of town, her lifestyle is one to which he aspires.
Tony hangs out with a bunch of fellow Italian-American teenage boys who, misogynistic & racist, seem to aspire to nothing else than going to the disco, getting drunk, getting laid, playing daredevil on the Brooklyn Bridge & getting into fights with local ‘Spics’ (Puerto-Ricans). Tony goes along with this, because these guys – warts & all – are his mates & they look out for for each other; but it becomes increasingly clear that unlike them he wants more out of life. Warning: this film contains a gang-rape sequence which is often partially or completely cut; it’s a nasty scene but I think an important one because it shows exactly what sort of kids Tony mixes with.
The crux of the film is Tony’s growing awareness of how much more life has to offer & his struggle to achieve it – it’s basically about growing up & growing out. A crucial rant which Tony delivers towards the film’s end sums it up: “I’m sick of all the dumping! Dad gets dumped on at work, he comes home & dumps on Mum! The ‘Spics’ dump on us, we dump on them! I want to get out of all the dumping!”
This is a film that is raised out of the ordinary by 2 things:
1) The all-pervasive 70’s disco soundtrack led by the Bee Gees: love it or loath it (or both), it fuels the film & – along with the garish 70’s disco & it’s accompanying fashion in clothing which today seem utterly, hilariously tacky – makes this possibly the definitive 1970’s movie.
2) Travolta himself: this is very much Travolta’s movie – the kid had (& still does have) real star quality & incredible charisma, & he carries the movie. The opening sequence where he’s ‘strutting his stuff’ down the street, checking out the girls, carrying his can of paint, ‘truckin’’ in perfect time to The Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ is a classic cinema sequence & sets the tone for the whole film. And to me, despite everything else, the film’s highpoint is Travolta’s unbelievable dancing in THAT white suit to ‘You Should Be Dancing’ in his beloved disco. He is so good he simply has to seen to be believed.
To my mind one of cinema’s great mysteries is why, apart of course from the next year’s ‘Grease’, a talent as huge as Travolta’s was largely left on the sidelines for nearly 20 years – as an older man in ‘Pulp Fiction’, (which by the way I think rates as possibly the most inspired casting decision in cinema history – especially for the dance scene with Uma Thurman). Maybe it was those skin-tight pink flairs – or did Hollywood have a premonition of ‘Battlefield: Earth’? The best he could manage was the ’Look Who’s Talking’ films, which although very good, hardly took the world by storm. It’s only in later life that he’s once again proved what a superstar he is – mainly in ‘Pulp Fiction’ & ‘Face/Off’.
This is a good if surprisingly low-key film that is raised to ‘classic’ status by it’s definitive soundtrack & style, & a terrific turn by one of Hollywood’s most under-rated stars.