"Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees was just one of the hit songs from the classic disco film "Saturday Night Fever" starring John Travolta. Yesterday marked a big birthday for the movie, reason enough for Michelle Miller to be stepping out in the neighborhood it made famous:
Even on a cold December day in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York, you'll see a lot of people on the sidewalk. But for many movie-goers, there's one strut along this street that definitely stands out:
The shoes, the swagger, the Bee Gees' soundtrack … all part of the unforgettable opening scene of "Saturday Night Fever," which captured the 1970s disco-era like no other film, premiering 40 years ago this weekend.
At its center: John Travolta's superstar performance as Tony Manero, the tough-but-tender young Italian-American working at a hardware store during by day, dancing and dreaming of a better life by night.
Some parts of Tony Manero's old neighborhood has remained the same, as Miller discovered, walking with NYU professor Dana Polan. For his students, "Saturday Night Fever" is required viewing.
"It's very much a working class movie, about both the possibilities of the community, but also the need to get out," Polan said. "Tony very much feels the entrapment of living in that world and wants to go elsewhere."
For Tony, the disco floor was the escape.
Does it resonate today? Yes, said Polan: "It's beautifully shot. It's beautifully edited. And Travolta is absolutely charismatic. I mean, he is just phenomenal."
A big part of the movie's story and success is its style, especially the clothes.
The filmmakers wanted Tony Manero to stand out, "and in deed he does," said costume designer Patrizia von Brandenstein. While she won an Academy Award for her work for 1984's "Amadeus," it was "Saturday Night Fever" that helped launch her career.
Much of the clothing was polyester; Brandenstein chose it for a few reasons: "It was the fabric of the day, and it was the affordable dress-up fabric," she said. "Shirts were very commonly made of that in brilliant colors. The pants, you certainly stand out in a pair of salmon-colored pants, don't you?"
Her most memorable touch: coming up with the concept for Travolta's iconic suit.
She showed Miller a preliminary sketch: "I knew it should be white, because heroes wear white!"
For most people, it will always be about the dancing.
Denise Rusinak, whose father owned the disco used in the film, was then a 17-year-old extra: "I'm standing right in back of John Travolta -- my brother, Charles, and I are right in back of him. We're up on the stage kind of grooving along and enjoying his solo."
To watch John Travolta dance to "You Should Be Dancing" in "Saturday Night Fever," click on the video player below:
Today, she owns Brooklyn Dance Center, where she takes all kinds of customers (including Miller).
You should be dancing, yeah!
Whether dance steps or behind-the-scene stories, forty years later, we're still learning some new things about "Saturday Night Fever."
For more info:
- "Saturday Night Fever: Director's Cut" on DVD and Blu-Ray (Amazon) and via streaming (iTunes)
- Brooklyn Dance Centers
- Dana Polan, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University