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Capturing the fever of Travolta’s dancing days - Saturday Night Fever: the Ultimate Disco Movie, review

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 22/12/2017 By Rachel Ward

Talk about stayin’ alive – disco should have been dead by 1977, but music impresario Robert Stigwood saw its wider potential. His faith in young TV star John Travolta and longtime clients, The Bee Gees, would help disco make the leap from fringe movement to genuine phenomenon when he brought both together in Saturday Night Fever. 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the blockbuster dance movie that made Travolta a superstar, produced the bestselling soundtrack of all time (until The Bodyguard muscled in) and brought the music style back into the mainstream.

For Saturday Night Fever: the Ultimate Disco Movie (BBC Two), excitable Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli revisited the streets of New York where the film was shot to tell its fascinating backstory and how it succeeded against the odds.

And it was a very fine documentary, packed with both fleeting sound bites and substantial accounts from those involved – Travolta waxed lyrical on how the film, which he describes as “Taxi Driver with dancing”, raised his status as an actor at a time when a personal tragedy was unfolding – the death of his girlfriend, Diana Hyland. Barry Gibb similarly talked at length about how the soundtrack helped The Bee Gees to overcome a fallow period in their careers.

a group of people playing instruments and performing on a stage © Provided by The Telegraph

There were contributions, too, from director John Badham, who fought off threats from the Mafia and filmed guerrilla-style on the streets, as well as the film’s costume designer and choreographer. Most interesting was a segment with location manager Lloyd Kaufman, who hated the job because of the film’s low budget and had to scour the rattier hangouts of Brooklyn.

As Kaufman cruised the streets with Tonioli, they were delighted to discover that Lenny’s Pizza, the shop where Tony Manero got his double-decker slice, still has the same signage from the Seventies. Going on-location, interspersed with archive clips of the time, helped to bring the hardbitten story – of working-class Italian-Americans who lived for their weekends of disco dancing – to life.

a man that is standing in the dark © Provided by The Telegraph person standing in front of a graffiti covered wall © Provided by The Telegraph

Tonioli, meanwhile, wasn’t just plonked in there because of his fondness for a glitterball – he was a young dancer himself in New York in 1977 and recalled how the “fever” took hold.

“I lived for disco,” he said, stabbing at the air with his finger while wearing Cuban heels and a white shirt unbuttoned to the navel. But most of all, he helpfully dissected the skill and athleticism of Travolta, whose incandescent performance prompted a dance craze. With the soundtrack ringing in the background, it was delightfully hard to sit still – a definite case of Friday night fever. 

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