The world of Saturday Night Fever is at best morally ambiguous and at worst downright evil. Male friends are, for the most part, not friends at all, just people to get a ride to the nightclub from and to drink and take drugs with. Women are barely considered people, and are passed around to satisfy men’s sexual urges–some of the women believe this to be the natural order. As one character puts it, it’s dog-eat-dog.
The product of this environment is Tony Minero, a supremely self-centered young man who cares little about his family, his friends, and especially women (except for as partners, dance or sex).
Tony is so myopic that he finds himself on the verge of wasting a singular talent and doesn’t recognize it, in part because he doesn’t have anyone to tell him (“Life’s going nowhere / Somebody help me”). Tony not only doesn’t have any real aspirations, he seems to barely know what an aspiration is. His only goal in life, winning a small-stakes dance contest, is so short-term and insignificant it would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.
In this desolate, live-for-the-moment world (“Fuck tomorrow”), what begins to shake Tony out of his complacency is a woman whose primary aspiration seems to be social climbing–it may not be much, but it’s something, an imperfect role model being better than none at all. But it’s depressing, if inevitable here, that she accepts sleeping her way to the top as an acceptable, perhaps mandatory, means of achieving her goals.
Tony himself isn’t very likable, and you don’t root for Tony. You root for his talent. Even in this godforsaken universe, squandering such a talent would be a tragedy. Will he waste it? In this, as in all things, Saturday Night Fever provides no easy answer.
Screenwriter Norman Wexler and director John Badham capture all of this, and much more, including the film’s stunning and classic soundtrack, to perfection. It’s a testament to their achievement that Saturday Night Fever, which famously takes place during the short-lived disco era, hasn’t aged a day, but it hasn’t. Its themes are eternal–it will always be Stayin’ Alive.
Bee Gees: “How Deep is Your Love? (1977)