Brooklyn days & Broadway nights

I saw Saturday Night Fever not long after it was released during the holiday season of 1977. But I never appreciated the phenomenally popular disco movie until I moved to New York City three years later. There I watched it, more than once, on my tiny black and white TV. In Manhattan, SNF registered as both a modern musical landmark – the tipping point of disco – and a classic coming-of-age story, a syncopated hymn to big city aspiration. Today it’s hard to explain, or imagine, just how remote the outer boroughs once felt. In a Village Voice profile of John Travolta published when the movie first came out, Frank Rose wrote: “In Saturday Night Fever, Travolta plays a kid who lives in a world where it’s like the 60s never happened.” There are remnants of this working-class Italian American culture in Brooklyn and Staten Island today, if you squint, but this old world is fading fast. The shocking thing about Saturday Night Fever in 1977 was its newness. Not only the music, though the ensuing disco fad triggered an earthquake with repercussions still heard today. The characters in Saturday Night Fever, the seemingly hopeless post-1960s teenagers drawn from Nik Cohn’s semi-fictional New York magazine story, represented a new lost generation with their own sounds and their own sublimated dreams, struggling to be recognized or just staying alive. Pauline Kael sums it up eloquently in one of her most perceptive and far-sighted reviews: ” …this movie has a new subject matter: how the financially pinched Seventies generation that grew up on television attempts to find its own forms and of beauty and release.” And find them they do: even if the escaping Brooklyn for “the city” angle doesn’t move you the way it does me, the music and dancing haven’t aged a whit. There’s nothing else like it. The Bee Gees were never better and Pulp Fiction aside, neither was Travolta.

And here’s the story upon which the movie was based: a fascinating example of New Journalism.


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