Disco Inferno: Saturday Night Fever at 45

How the music reflected the era in John Travolta’s cinematic star turn

Saturday Night Fever film poster (Image: Idmb)

It was a movie that wasn’t supposed to be a hit and a soundtrack that wasn’t intended to happen.

What actually occurred was that film becoming a massive success that made a star of its lead.
The accompanying album, released 45 years ago today, became the biggest selling ever at the time of its release. It’s still the second-biggest soundtrack album after 1992’s The Bodyguard.

The story of both the movie and the album start with Robert Stigwood, an impresario who was a film producer, theatrical producer and the head of RSO Records, who had successes like the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton on its roster.

Stigwood’s next film business move was the risky play of hitching his wagon to a TV actor.

This was a point where there was a clear delineation between television and film,when prestige cable projects were years away. But Stigwood knew Welcome Back Kotter star John Travolta from his theatrical production work and felt he could make the leap.

There was one problem, Stigwood would have to wait to make the movie he intended  — Grease with Travolta as Danny –because the musical was still too successful on Broadway.

Thus, with a three-picture deal, another movie needed to be found before Grease could be filmed. The producers settled on expanding on a New York article by Nik Cohn titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”.

The article drew some buzz around Hollywood with its detailed milieu and the central character. Of course, it turned out that the “everything described in this article is factual” could have just replaced the word “factual” with “complete bullshit.” Cohn revealed 20 years later that he’d made the whole thing up.

New York Magazine June 7, 1976 (Image: Google)

But that wasn’t known in 1976. Cohn and Stigwood knew each other from London, which helped the producer secure the rights.

And thus, the movie was on its way, with a script in progress from Norman Wexler, who’d written Joe and co-written Serpico. John Avildsen, fresh off Rocky, was tabbed to direct. He’d later be fired and replaced by John Badham less than three weeks before filming started.

For a drama that positioned the disco as the centerpiece and place of the lives of some desperate and seriously messed up people, it needed a soundtrack to match.

During filming, there were was no new Bee Gees material. Travolta later recalled that he was dancing to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs. There was some thought to compiling various artists’ songs for the soundtrack.

And indeed Scaggs was approached for his hit song “Lowdown”, which was used in the early scene where Tony and Stephanie are dancing in the rehearsal studio. But Scaggs was signed to Columbia Records, which wanted to use the song in an upcoming Columbia film — Looking for Mr. Goodbar — instead. The move cost Scaggs, as you can imagine the difference in royalties on an album that sells around 100,000 copies over a few years to one that sells 25,000,000.

 

AUDIO: Boz Scaggs “Lowdown”

The Bee Gees didn’t enter the picture until the film was in post-production. They’d reinvigorated their career by incorporating R&B and, yes, disco into their sound on 1975’s Main Course and 1976’s Children of the World.

Stigwood had approached them before, but they begged off as they were putting together a live album. Unable to get Scaggs or a number of Stevie Wonder’s songs, Stigwood asked the Bee Gees again, this time with more urgency, and they agreed.

They came up with all of their new material over a weekend. The songs would go on to be hits and standards for the rest of the Bee Gees’ existence. Another became a hit for Yvonne Elliman, who’d had a couple of hit songs in 1976 — “Love Me” and “Hello Stranger”.

“Stayin’ Alive” remains the most recognizable of what the Gibb brothers came up that weekend. It’s inextricable from the movie itself, as it plays over the iconic opening credits as Travolta’s Tony Manero struts carrying a can of paint, walking through the neighborhood under the elevated train.

 

VIDEO: Saturday Night Fever opening scene 

He’s full of the bravado that’s going to be ripped apart and exposed as undeserved during the movie.

Indeed, Barry Gibb’s lyrics implies that demolition process. Tony may be a “woman’s man with no time to talk”, but he’s unable to keep the desperation away. The city’s breakin’ with everybody shakin’ and he’s pleading for somebody to help him.

That insistent beat happened by accident. Drummer Dennis Byron was unable to be at the session because his mother passed. Producer Albhy Galuten built a loop off a beat Byron had played for “Night Fever.” Paired with a bassline made for strutting through Bensonhurst and punctuated by that recognizable guitar lick, the foundation for a disco classic was in place.

All the while, the Gibb brothers wield those falsettoes like switchblades, putting across the pathos at the heart of these flawed people coming of age.

The disco is the place to escape for most of the characters, but Tony wants it to be the portal to an actual escape from a dead-end life in Bay Ridge. “Night Fever” reflects that allure. Even with only a somewhat bare bones idea of what the film was, Barry Gibb was able to intuit what the filmmakers were hoping to get across.

The song itself is full of impeccable details — that high-hat driven beat, the scratchy funk guitar, those lush strings and the way the harmonies in the chorus play off Barry’s insistent lead vocals (especially on that bridge).

It was a perfect backing for one of the key dance scenes in the movie (the one where Tony gets kissed by a girl who calls him Al Pacino). It was also everywhere, spending seven weeks at No. 1. And I can personally attest to it being used for a group dance for grade school students (who were too young to be allowed to watch the film itself, mind you) at halftime at a high school basketball game in early 1978. Thankfully no home video of this exists.

 

VIDEO: Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love”

“How Deep Is Your Love” is a gorgeous ballad, aided immeasurably how the brothers’ harmonies blend so well.

One would expect it to be placed in the movie at some moment of romantic beauty or at least passioned lust between people who don’t know what kind of adults they can be.

But it was anything but. Towards the end of the film, we’ve seen how flawed Tony is. He’s way too casual with slurs (not an inaccurate portrayal of the type of guys in that neighborhood and setting would have been). In a rare bit of self-awareness, he’s realized he doesn’t deserve the dance trophy after he and Stephanie have been outdanced by a Puerto Rican couple. But after giving them the trophy, in the very next scene, he tries to force himself on Stephanie. That same night, he does nothing when Annette, who’s carried an unrequited crush on him the whole movie, is raped in the backseat while he sits in the front. Not only that, afterwards, he despicably insults her with one vile word. But before she’s given any agency to respond, we have to shift to the resolution of Bobby’s story, in which his desperation and pain (Tony’s also a terrible friend having ignored him) leads him to recklessly (or intentionally) fall to his death from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

And so, Tony has lost one of his friends, acted horribly to pretty much everyone (and may be starting to realize it), is off to ride the trains, silently with eyes closed the train station lights flash off his face. And after all that’s just happened, THIS is where the Bee Gees’ love ballad plays.

To top it off, he winds up going to Stephanie’s, determined to actually move out of his dead-end life (or at least attempt to). And the two decide to be just friends with Stephanie, for some reason, giving Tony a kiss on the forehead, showing him way, way more mercy than he deserves. And frankly if she’d been around him earlier, she would have given the justified response of shutting the door in his face.

And at that moment, the shot freezes and what starts playing again? “How Deep Is Your Love.”

“More Than a Woman” wasn’t released as a single in the UK or U.S. as Tavares’ version, also on the soundtrack, was instead. It’s more joyful than “How Deep” and just as lush. It’s a wonderful choice for Tony and Stephanie’s dance contest song, although that choice is undercut by Tony’s actions a short time later.

 

 

 

The Bee Gees had intended “How Deep” for Elliman, but Stigwood, correctly, felt it suited them better. And thus, Elliman got “If I Can’t Have You” instead. Giving it to a solo singer was a wise move to underline the emotion and it’s got a nice hook, to boot.

It carries the same desperation that permeates the movie, playing over an earlier scene in which it’s already clear that Annette has feelings for Tony and that she could do so much better.

The soundtrack contained some prior hits– the Bee Gees’ own “You Should Be Dancing” (which figures in the movie’s most well-known dance scene with Travolta owning that multi-light dance floor, and “Jive Talkin'”. One-hit wonder Walter Murphy’s disco version of Beethoven’s 5th also appears.

It also revived a couple of songs.

KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” had previously been on their first album, a B-side to No. 1 hit “Shake Your Booty”. It was a nifty slice of blues-influenced disco that was, unlike the movie itself, happy.

The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” had been a club hit ignored by pop radio as a single off the album of the same name. Re-released in 1978, it almost reached the Top 10. It’s wisely included in its full-length version to amp up its disco glory.

The rest of the album consists of scattered tracks from the likes of Kool and the Gang and MFSB along with instrumental filler from David Shire.

Shire’s “Manhattan Skyline” sounds like the theme song for an NBC Mystery Movie show about a disco detective (Banecetti?).

Does it need the filler? No. It didn’t need two versions of “More Than a Woman”, either.
It doesn’t sink the soundtrack, though, as it still perfectly captures the start of disco’s second wave, albeit a snapshot that was whiter and straighter than the music’s origins. It also feels, to be honest, that it captures a different film with less ugly characters (particularly the men) than the actual one.

There wasn’t exactly a feeling that a second wave was coming. Music supervisor Bill Oakes, in a 2001 VH-1 Behind the Movie episode, said, “I put the masters of this album, all four sides, in the back of my car. And it was dawn. I was driving down Hollywood Boulevard and in front of me a truck had a bumper sticker saying, ‘Death to Disco’. And in the back of my car, I had what was the result of nine months’ work and thinking, ‘We’re too late.’

Most of the people involved had no idea the film would be a hit, certainly not the suits at Paramount. The actors thought they were making something that felt like an art film, a drama that felt almost like a documentary.

Stigwood seemingly had an idea, though. To bolster that idea he did something that hadn’t really been done before. The soundtrack was released first. By the time the movie came out just over a month later, two of the album’s songs were hits and a third was in the process of taking off.

The album sold over 22 million copies to date, still good enough to rank ninth all-time.

Saturday Night Fever Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, RSO 1977

The movie, bolstered by Travolta’s magnetic performance, was as massive a success as the soundtrack, raking in many times beyond the $3.5 million it cost to make. Adjusted for inflation, its box office would be over $570 million in today’s dollars.

The synergy between the two would have an influence on the marketing of movies through soundtracks for a long time to come.

It became impossible to avoid Barry Gibb in particular during the late ’70s– not just the Bee Gees hits, but the hit songs he’d written for his brother Andy and for others (like Frankie Valli and Barbra Streisand).

The combination of audience disco fatigue and general overexposure hurt the Bee Gees’ cause as the ’80s dawned. By the point they returned for the inferior sequel — 1983’s Stayin’ Alive — the soundtrack’s only top 10 hit came from, you guessed it, Frank Stallone.

They also weren’t helped by their next movie pairing with Stigwood — 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which starred noted thespian Peter Frampton in the lead and the Bee Gees as the titular band. It was enough of a bomb that the band avoided any mention of it in their 2020 HBO documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. But Sgt. Pepper, as a film and a soundtrack, is a fiasco for another time.

Yet there’s no erasing Saturday Night Fever. Thanks to the reinventing Gibb brothers, it showcases some of their best work and became inextricably linked with the genre that spawned it.

As for Annette and Stephanie? They deserved so much better.

 

Latest posts by Kara Tucker (see all)

 You May Also Like

Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *