Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Your Disco Needs You

If ever one needed to be reminded of the power of disco, it's now. I swear, I listened to the radio for the first time in a long while and I just don't even want to talk about it. It was too terrifying for words, really, and I hope to never have to do it ever again. I hate becoming one of those fussy ol' sods who shakes his or her head at what's "new", but dear god. So many indecipherable, tuneless performers who can't even express simple musical feelings like waving one's hands in the air (like they just don't care) without offending my ears. Dear disco, we need you more than ever! You were so sparkly and catchy, and the people that made you famous were capable of writing some hella catchy hooks to hang their lovey-dovey lyrics on. Sigh.

Last night I watched iconic '70s musical Saturday Night Fever. It's not a traditional musical, of course, certainly not in the vein of star (and Oscar-nominee) John Travolta's next star vehicle, Grease, one year later, but I suppose they were aiming to give the genre a revisionist twist. It's certainly something that flows into Bob Fosse's All That Jazz in 1979, although the trend certainly didn't last all that long. Which is a shame, because I think writer Norman Wexler and director John Badham definitely had some interesting things to say. I am, however, at two minds about the movie though. I think the dance sequences, predominantly Travolta strutting his metaphorical stuff on the flash-lit discotheque dancefloor, have obvious energy and panache, while I also think many of the more dramatic action in the film's darker, angrier second half have real wow factor. Alas, I'm not entirely sure how well it stands as a whole. I didn't too much care for any of the familiar family stuff, which I felt was poached from other sources and played too much for ethnic laughs. I also wasn't much of a fan of lead actress Karen Lynn Gorney's rather under-developed side story.

What it does ace though, clearly, is in Travolta's performance as Tony Manero, the costume design of Patrizia Von Brandenstein, the use of New York iconography, and of course that stunning soundtrack. I implore you to read Clothes on Film's take on the costumes, which fabulously details Travolta's white disco suit down to the somewhat frayed edges. Really helps put into context just how much care and precision was put into it (and is put into every costume decision, no matter how big or small). It holds a similar place in the annals of cinema costume design as Ryan Gosling's white scorpion jacket from Drive. The representation of New York City is equally fascinating, with its dirty view of a downtrodden pre-gentrification Brooklyn is so fabulous, and I adored the way it only frequently used Brooklyn's Manhattan connection, the Brooklyn Bridge, as a way of showing how little these people actually think about the metropolis at their back door. In fact, any film that utilises the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge so prominently will always get my attention since it's such an underused location. Sure, it's a familiar way to frame such a sequence, but I like that Fever did with the Verrazano-Narrows Bright in 1977 what Woody Allen's Manhattan did with the Queensboro Bridge two years later.

And what can be said about the music that hasn't already? At nearly 40 years old, the soundtrack is still a masterpiece and full of worthy classics. Not just the BeeGees' tracks, but also Yvonne Elliman, David Shire, and others. Listening to these tracks it's not hard to see not only why disco was so successful as a genre, but how somebody like Tony Manero could obsess over it as much as he does. It's liberating in a way so few other styles of music are.

Still, for all the film's faults and successes, there is one moment of pure perfection. It arrives late in the movie and comes as Travolta's lower class dancer enters the subway and travels to Manhattan in the middle of the night. The juxtaposition of this moment is something I think the director Badham strived the entire movie to find and finally got it. As Manero stands in his no longer crisp white disco suit on the graffiti-plastered subway car, I was so incredibly taken by the imagery. It's a gorgeous moment in spite of the ugly nature of it. I was so taken by it and kind of wished the filmmakers had taken the time to be more observant throughout more of the project. That longing and desperation really came through in a way that perhaps other scenes had tried but never quite reached.

Screencaps via

Speaking of disco - and really when should we ever NOT be speaking about disco? - I also recently watched David Yates' The Deep. For all the issues I may have with Steven Spielberg's Jaws (to which The Deep shares an author), The Deep most certainly ain't no Jaws. It's pretty flimsy whenever it's above water and it's hard not to feel somewhat anticlimactic. I thought there was going to be some sort of giant creature hidden in the wreck! Yawn. The Deep was another of 1977's highest grossing movies, but it's little more than a lousy Jaws knock off.

What it does have, however, is a crazily unnecessary disco theme song performed by Donna Summer. It's called "Down Deep Inside (Theme from The Deep)" and it has absolutely nothing to do with the film that features it. Apparently the producer wanted it as some sort of James Bond styled moment - the score and the song are written by frequent Bond composer John Barry - and as good as the song itself it, it's so shoehorned into the production that it becomes laughable whenever the jangly theme music appears on the score.

Remember, The Deep is about finding a treasure trove of morphine at the bottom of the sea. Disco? Why not!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article but issues with Jaws??? Is that even possible?