‘Saturday Night Fever’ at 45: John Travolta says ‘Stayin’ Alive’ didn’t open nearly as much as the disco classic

John Travolta in the iconic opening sequence of Saturday night fever. (photo: Everett Collection)

You can tell by the way he walks that he doesn’t have time to talk. Forty-five years ago, John Travolta scrambled a Brooklyn sidewalk—and into movie history—in the iconic opening sequence of Saturday night fever. Premiering in theaters on December 16, 1977, the disco blockbuster opened with blasting Bee Gees anthem, “Stayin’ Alive,” and the combination of the band’s music and Travolta’s swagger catapulted the film into the box office stratosphere.

Believe it or not, though, not everyone was on board with this choice of song. Saturday night fever Producer Robert Stigwood originally intended to save “Stayin’ Alive” for a dance sequence coming later in the film. “He wanted me to do my big solo dance to ‘Stayin’ Alive,'” Travolta revealed to Yahoo Entertainment during a 2019 interview.

Watch full role call With Travolta below or drop the needle to 2:42 for Saturday night fever part:

But Travolta knew it would be wrong to bury the song later in the movie. He just had to find a diplomatic way to help the producer see the error of his ways. “I said, Robert, she doesn’t have a fast enough rhythm [to dance to]”,” Remember Stigwood’s saying. “But I can walk down the street to ‘Stayin’ Alive’.”

That argument convinced the producer, and Travolta hit the pavement in persona as Brooklyn’s King of Disco, Tony Manero, strutting in time to the music. “They played the song on a boombox below the camera,” he said, adding that it was the happiest possible ending to a beginning Saturday night fever phenomenon. “Switching ‘Stayin’ Alive’ to the front of the movie was the best thing to do.”

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment on the film’s 40th anniversary in 2017, Fever Director John Badham – his younger sister Mary starred in the 1962 classic, To Kill a MockingbirdHe agreed that the opening sequence would be a DOA with any other song. “The Bee Gees gave me their demo songs, and when I listened to their five demos, I just knew ‘Stayin’ Alive’ had to open the movie,” he explained.


Travolta and Karen Lynn Gurney in full disco mode Saturday night fever. (Photo: CBS via Getty Images)

“I also knew the first thing we had to see were Tony’s feet in those very special purple shoes,” Badham continued. “You can tell his mind isn’t in his business; it’s about dancing, looking cool, and being a street stud. He instantly focuses on who the main character is and what’s on his mind. It just happened together so beautifully.”

Saturday night feverThe raucous opening scene — and groovy dance numbers — often make people forget that the movie itself is actually quite dark and dramatic as it charts Tony’s attempts to flee his working-class neighborhood in search of a better future. “It has a very dark core,” Badham asserted in his 2017 interview, adding that he approached it as a “Brooklyn documentary” of the late 1970s, capturing all the violence, economic woes, and prejudices of that era.

In the film’s most famous scene, Tony’s first dance partner, Annette (played by Donna Pesco), is raped by his friends in the back of his car, and he does not intervene. “I was kind of hesitant to shoot quite a lot of this scene at all, and I kept looking for ways to hint more at it,” Badham said. “But Robert Stigwood was very adamant that we do it relatively forcefully.”

1977, American actor John Travolta sits on a seat inside a graffiti-painted subway car in a still from director John Badham's film

Tony (Travolta) is looking to escape a tough life in Brooklyn Saturday night fever. (Photo: Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

“What you see is I’m trying to hint at it without showing too much,” the director explained. And by playing too much on Annette’s sadness and Travolta’s disgust with the whole thing. He’s not participating in it, and he looks down on those guys that take part in it, and he looks down on her, too. It’s still unpleasant, there’s no getting around it, but it’s important. To see it all. It’s another thing that eventually drives him to leave Brooklyn—that and the death of his friend, Bobby, who falls off the Verrazzano Bridge.”

Badham said he “did his research” before he ran Saturday night fever, visiting discos around New York City to create the ones seen in the movie. Meanwhile, Travolta has taken charge of Tony’s look, originally preferring a combination of a black suit and white shirt in contrast to the world-famous white polyester everyone remembers. (That suit was later purchased by the late film critic, Gene Siskel, for $2,000. Years later, he sold it for $145,000 at Christie’s.)

But Travolta said his first fashion choice was scuttled by the film’s legendary costume designer, Patricia Field. “She insisted it be a white jumpsuit, because you can see it better in the dark,” he recalls. “I actually had to agree—it made so much sense. So I acquiesced, and thus the iconic illusion we all know was born.” To this day, he is still alive.

Saturday night fever Currently streaming on Paramount+.

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