Blindspotting: Saturday Night Fever and Grease

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I‘m not sure you could you think of a more obvious pairing than this month’s Blind Spot picks…Released inside a year of each other, Saturday Night Fever and Grease starred then teen-heartthrob John Travolta, had wide mainstream appeal, a direct influence on a wide variety of styles and arrived chock full of danceable and, as it turned out, massively popular songs that have ingrained themselves into our skulls (and even rejuvenated certain genres of music). These weren’t simply movies from the late 70s, these were broad based touchstones of the era. And yet…I would’ve been hard pressed to find two more disparate films in terms of tone, topic and approach.

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First and foremost: Saturday Night Fever isn’t a musical. Now even if you haven’t seen it, I suppose that’s an obvious statement since the barest of knowledge of the film tells you that Travolta and the cast don’t spontaneously burst into songs with throbbing disco beats behind them. But, even knowing that the film had some dark and cynical edges to it, I expected that much of it would have some of the bounce of a typical musical – a dance number here, a montage there and then a whole bunch of other dance numbers. Those elements are present (particularly in a couple of extended scenes in the disco club named 2001 Odyssey), but the reality of the lives of these characters weighs everything down. That’s not a criticism of the film by any means – as a matter of fact, it’s what makes the movie highly engaging and able to withstand any of its elements that would typically feel dated 35 years on. The flip side is Grease: a candy-coated confection of a musical with fantasy elements, slight characters and a shine to its story that doesn’t allow any reality to enter in. Some of the musical numbers are enjoyable, Olivia Newton-John is surprisingly charming and it’s all quite easily consumed, but it’s still just a dated 50s fluff story wrapped in a dated 80s shell. And that is a criticism…

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To be clear, Grease is still fun in many parts, but it crumbles away like a poorly made chocolate chip muffin – you’re left with some tasty gooey morsels, not much of a whole and a bit of a queasy feeling afterwards. Especially if you start analyzing some of its story points. Saturday Night Fever, however, holds together wonderfully well as an in depth and telling view of a group of working class kids from an Italian section of Brooklyn. But apart from some of the dance sequences and a few comedic touches, it’s hard to tell what generated the mainstream appeal and repeat movie-going business. By focusing tightly on the 5 guys (and specifically their 19 year-old leader Tony Manero), it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs and ends up as a portrait of just about any big city neighbourhood and its set of young men who aren’t yet aware of the few options ahead of them. The other side of the bridge (Manhattan) beckons, but they haven’t yet realized it’s with a mocking tone. That’s the crux of Tony’s story – a shift in perspective from a guy who only sees until the next Saturday night (“Fuck the future!”) to one who grows in awareness of the limitations around him and doesn’t like what he sees. He’s warned early on by his boss at the paint store (“No, the future fucks you!”) who insists on paying his people on Monday so that they have a chance to save a little instead of blowing it on the weekend. Those older employees who have been there for decades are also a rather clear indication of what’s in store for Tony, but he still lives for that disco club on Saturday night. In it, he’s king. Everyone recognizes that swagger of his, the ladies want him, his friends follow his every cue and he is envied for the one thing he is really good at – his dancing. He doesn’t get any support at home – his father is out of work and begrudges the fact that Tony helps to support everyone, his mother only talks about his older brother the priest (and crosses herself when she does so) and his older brother is absent – so he invests everything into his entourage at the club and his practice sessions for the big dance contest. He starts practicing with his previous partner Annette even though she pesters him constantly while he’s at the club. Though Tony is honest to a fault in not leading her on, her obsession with him puts blinders on and she’s excited at spending time with him. Until he meets Stephanie…

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So I guess there is that similarity between the films: both have Travolta’s character meeting a woman who makes him consider changing his life. One of them takes that idea seriously, while the other discards it by the roadside. In Grease, Travolta plays Danny Zuko – the leader of the T-Birds gang at Rydell High. Like Tony Manero, he’s obviously the most magnetic of the group (apart from Jeff Conaway’s sneering Kenickie, the rest of the T-Birds are total doofuses who barely register) and can have his pick of the ladies (including the all-girl Pink Ladies gang). But it’s the lovely Sandy that has grabbed his attention like no other before. The film opens with them saying goodbye after meeting on the beach and spending the summer together. They think she is going home to Australia and that they’ll never meet again, but lo and behold, she shows up in Danny’s high school in the Fall and the two are reunited. Danny almost immediately contains his joy in order to look “cool” in front of his gang buddies (we never really quite understand why he would care) and the film continues to push and pull them apart due to the meddling of others or the reluctance of Danny to change from his super-cool rebel image. He does consider the possibility that he shouldn’t care what others think and even tries out for some of the school sports teams to show Sandy he’s making an effort. Sandy hangs around with the Pink Ladies, but retains her good girl nature while Rizzo (the leader of the Ladies) schemes to prevent the two star-crossed lovebirds from finding common ground.

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Grease also has its own dance contest (OK, so there are a few additional similarities between the films, but they are all surface) which is being televised nationwide via the National Bandstand TV show. Other than that, there’s not much story – just a series of vignettes, a rivalry with another gang (yet another small commonality with Fever), poor comedy and numerous songs scattered throughout. Like the dancing in Saturday Night Fever, the songs are typically the focus of the film’s energy and are easily the most entertaining aspect of the movie. The spirited “Summer Nights”, “You’re The One That I Want” and “Greased Lighting” are all perfect pop sounds for pretty people dancing about and are the prime reasons why the film works at all. Of note is that “Greased Lighting” as well as “Beauty School Drop Out” bring some fantasy to their musical numbers – the first morphing from the school’s auto shop class into a full sparkling stage with shiny new roadster while the latter sends down an angelic Frankie Avalon to croon to Sandy’s best pal Frenchy (Didi Conn). Other standard 50s tunes done by Sha-Na-Na keep the fingers a-poppin’, but the entire movie almost crashes down when the music isn’t the main focus. The story is bland and the characters add little (with the possible exceptions of Stockard Channing’s Rizzo and Dinah Manoff’s Marty Maraschino) while the comedic elements are strained and unfunny. There are some nice performance turns by some seasoned actors (the great Joan Blondell, Eve Arden, Dody Goodman, Alice Ghostley and Sid Caesar), but it’s not enough to save the proceedings. The biggest disappointment, however, is the climactic “You’re The One That I Want” scene where Danny and Sandy switch personalities to show the other that they can change. Danny is keen to show Sandy that he lettered in track while she has sexed herself up in black leather. That swapping of roles lasts for all of 5 seconds once Danny sees that she has changed for him – thoughts of the track are gone and for the rest of the number (probably the best song of the bunch, but also some of the worst choreography and mugging for the camera) he drools after her. He may sing about needing to shape up to be her man, but it appears that he hasn’t changed a bit while the needy Sandy can now latch on to him.

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Perhaps I’m over-thinking that, but after watching Annette throw herself at Tony and get treated miserably by his whole gang, the end of Grease sticks in my craw a bit. Stephanie, however, catches Tony’s eye because she carries herself with a great deal more confidence. She’s older, works in the city and starts to open Tony’s eyes to a world that is much more than just Saturday night. Granted, she drops names entirely too often and is more than likely over-stating her role in her PR related job, but Tony begins to see how much of a trap he’s in (“just across the bridge it’s amazing how everything is different…”). It’s not just the stagnate job climate and lack of options, but it’s the mentality of everyone around him. “Everybody’s gotta dump on somebody” Tony realizes and he understands that he’s part of that line of thinking. His Dad got it from his bosses, his Mom gets it from his dad and Tony gets it from both of them. Tony tends to dump on people like Annette or occasionally (like his friends do) on other races and cultures. Though Tony isn’t a dumb guy and can actually be very appreciative and open (as he and Stephanie start practicing their dance routine, he is open to her suggestions for new moves), the standard default operating mode for him and his buddies is that of racist misogynist jerk. But Tony has the capacity to change and if there is any hope at all in the film, it’s that he sees how everyone looks for scapegoats and starts to realize that he needs to take responsibility for himself. But what of the gang from Grease? What do they learn? Rizzo gains some understanding of Sandy, but apart from that jerks can still get girls, geeky guys always get put in their place, unprotected sex has no consequence, high school is all you need and, of course, The Girl learns that she needs to change to fit Her Man. As dark as Saturday Night Fever gets at times, Grease ends up being far more depressing.

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One comment

  1. Malcolm Dorset

    Travolta had a hit single entitled “Let Her In”, peaking at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in July 1976. In the next few years, he appeared in two of his most noted screen roles: Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and as Danny Zuko in Grease (1978).

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