Music-versary: ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is released in theaters on Dec. 16, 1977


Release Date: December 16, 1977

Staring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller

Directed by: John Badham

Soundtrack and score: The Bee Gees (Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb); various artists

Backstory: When the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was released in November 1977, it knocked the reigning number one — Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors — off the top of the Billboard charts and stationed itself there for a full six months. But that was nothing compared to the reaction the public had when the film hit theaters on December 16, 1977, after premiering at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles two days prior.

There was new hope for disco, a genre that some saw as “on the way out,” and a new megastar in John Travolta, as the white-suit clad Tony Manero who just wanted to get out of the neighborhood and make something of himself (preferably through disco). Despite some characters’ casual racism, degradation and street harassment of women and gay men as well as a graphic scene of backseat rape —  which was blindly accepted in those days — Saturday Night Fever is still is the best document we have of the disco craze in 1970s New York, warts and all.

Based on Nick Cohn’s New York Magazine 1976 cover story “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” Fever brought a music craze to the masses, primarily though the hits of the Bee-Gees — who the New York Times called “among the movie’s most influential principals” — a band of brothers from Australia, by way of England, who had found brief fame in late 1960s London before helping to define the disco sound a decade later. Barry, the eldest of the brothers Gibb, was also the most traditionally attractive of the group, and had helped re-launch their career after by embracing his big smile and bigger falsetto on tracks like Staying Alive, and Night Fever, along with Brothers Gibb-penned tracks like If I Can’t Have You, and More Than a Woman.

Breakout Star: Travolta, who had found minor celebrity as a teenage bad-boy in the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, turned into a full-fledged star as they shot on location in the streets of Brooklyn. “It started with a few school girls noticing him who then became hundreds and then thousands, and by noontime of that day, we had to quit and go home,” said director John Badham, according to Turner Classic Movies, adding that they would have to make fake call sheets and start shooting at the break of dawn, just to avoid the rabid fans.

Dance Fever: Although it’s gone down in dance-film history as one of the greatest rug-cuttings ever (replete with a pissed-off Fran Drescher standing at the far end of the room) Travolta’s solo dance at the 2001 Odyssey Club almost didn’t make it. He’d been working on it for nine months — knee drops, splits, some kind of proto-break dancing that couldn’t have been good for his knees — but the editors ultimately cut it off into close ups.

John Travolta, it appeared, was faking it. “I was crying and very angry because of the way the dance highlight was shot,” he later told Vanity Fair. “I knew how it should appear on-screen, and it wasn’t shot that way. You couldn’t even see my feet!” Luckily, producer Robert Stigwood gave the 23-year-old Travolta the authority to supervise a new cut, one which would make teenage girls and dance aficionados alike drool with envy, and ensure Saturday Night Fever a spot as one of the greatest dance films of all time.

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