You’ve got to love Saturday Night Fever. As a cultural phenomenon–kicking the disco craze into high gear, launching the career of John Travolta, and making the Bee Gees part of the sound of the ’70s–it accomplished a lot more than most films can ever dream of, even setting aside the $282 million it made for its backers. As a piece of entertainment, it holds up surprisingly well. It was released 36 years ago this week and it’s still a very entertaining and engaging film after all that time.
But did you know that it was born out of an act of fraud, one of the most daring literary forgeries of all time? There are many fascinating things about Saturday Night Fever, but the story behind it is, I think, the most interesting.
It all began in June 1976 with a British rock and roll writer named Nik Cohn. Nik was traveling in America, reporting on the music scene in New York City, and was impressed with how the rock-infused counterculture of the ’60s–which centered around Manhattan–was giving way in the ’70s to a more working-class vibe, centered around Brooklyn and Queens which were primarily ethnic neighborhoods. He wrote a fascinating and incisive story for New York Magazine called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” profiling a guy named Vincent, who worked in a hardware store by day and boogied at a disco club called 2001 Odyssey at night. Vainglorious and insecure, Vincent was obsessed with his clothes, unlucky in love, unhappy with his life and a demon on the dance floor. It was a wonderful story. You can read it here, if you like.
The opening scene of “Saturday Night Fever” introduced the world to the song the Bee Gees will always be remembered for, “Stayin’ Alive.”
There was just one problem: Cohn’s story wasn’t true. There was no Vincent. 2001 Odyssey existed, but it wasn’t quite the way Cohn described it, at least not in 1976. The subculture of disco-dancing Italians was wildly overblown. In fact, Cohn based the main characters in his story on people he knew in the mod culture back in England in the ’60s.
Of course, no one knew that at the time. When Hollywood saw an opportunity for a big glitzy film with (most importantly) the possibility of heavy tie-ins with popular music and record sales, they pounced on Cohn’s article. Veteran screenwriter Norman Wexler penned a draft, transforming Vincent into Tony Manero, and rock producer Robert Stigwood, who managed the Bee Gees for years, got involved, as well as a top exec from RSO Records who would produce the soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the Bee Gees would feature heavily on it. John G. Avildsen, then one of the hottest directors in Hollywood after his last film Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture, was signed to direct. A young star named John Travolta was thought to be perfect for Tony Manero, and he was very popular from the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. The film was originally titled Saturday Night, with “Fever” later added to reference one of the songs on the soundtrack.
The making of the film, as well as the finished movie itself, was basically a love letter to the city of New York, but the New York of the common people as opposed to the glass-tower set across the river in Manhattan. Numerous real life Brooklyn locations were used including a hardware store (now gone), a White Castle burger joint, the 2001 Odyssey dance studio (which became a gay club in the ’80s), and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which is the setting of the emotional climax of the picture.
“Saturday Night Fever” influenced ’70s fashion as much as it influenced ’70s music. Believe it or not, this was “cool” in 1977.
It was a pretty raucous production. John Avildsen dropped out after a fight with producer Stigwood, and new director John Badham took over just three weeks before cameras started rolling. Teenage girls screamed whenever John Travolta came into view. A group of Hasidic Jews, who were opposed to the production of the movie in their neighborhood, tried to sabotage it. Even the Mafia got into the act, allegedly trying to extort members of the crew. It was also a physically grueling shoot. Yes, John Travolta does all his own dance numbers. That really is him in the infamous “white suit” finale. The suit itself sold at auction years later for $145,000.
Saturday Night Fever was certainly a good career move for just about everybody involved. When the film opened in December 1977 it was the biggest hit of the year after Star Wars and raked in buckets of cash. The soundtrack album, marketed aggressively by RSO Records, ultimately became the highest-grossing soundtrack of all time and pumped life into the Bee Gees’ flagging career. John Travolta became one of the youngest actors ever to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar–ironically he was beaten by Richard Dreyfuss, who was the youngest man ever to win Best Actor. In 2010 Saturday Night Fever was chosen for special preservation by the American Film Institute as artistically, culturally or historically significant. By then disco was dead for 30 years, but audiences still love the movie.
In 1997, around the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, Nik Cohn finally spilled the beans. He admitted “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” was a total fabrication. Did anyone care? Not really. In fact, in a way the literary fraud of the article sort of makes the movie based on it all the more endearing. When you think of disco music, platform shoes and tight polyester pants, isn’t Saturday Night Fever the first thing that pops into your mind?