by Katherine Velasquez
Written for Liberal Arts Seminar: College Writing (LARTS 111, Fall 2011)
There is no doubt that music plays a supporting role in films and is especially crucial in revealing character motivations. Film directors or producers must choose this important ingredient carefully and intentionally so that character development can be supported in the highest degree by the music. This close relationship can be seen in Saturday Night Fever, where Tony Manero struts to the beat of the song “Stayin’ Alive” and lights up the movie screen as a young, carefree disco king. Tony’s love for dance guides his life, and as soon as he walks onto the dance floor at Club 2001, all eyes are entranced with his stylish moves and shining charisma. Tony’s friends are always by his side at the disco and help to light up his spirit, but Tony proclaims many times that he is “bored” with his current lifestyle. Tony and his gang are so focused on the present, it seems they are destined for a mediocre life: they have no problem “making it” with any girl they meet, they blow all their earnings at the dance club each weekend, and they have no goals or dreams. The groovy beat of much of the movie’s music makes it impossible for characters to control their actions on the dance floor, but the lyrics of the songs fail to match up with the carelessness of the dance scene. Even though the songs are just in the background, the clever lyrics often provide clues about how Tony is feeling and what is happening on a symbolic level. Throughout the movie, Tony dynamically changes from a teen who cares only about himself and the present, to a character who thinks more about others and his own decisions. The juxtaposition of lively disco music and insightful lyrics help to illustrate the changes between Tony as a youthful, careless teen and a mature young man.
The opening song of the movie, “Stayin’ Alive,” characterizes Tony as a careless, youthful individual through its beat and lyrics. The song helps to deliver clues about Tony’s interests, priorities, and attitude instantly through its visual depiction of Tony and its aural language. In the opening scene, Tony struts to the beat of the music as the music proclaims, “you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man; no time to talk.” These lyrics reflect Tony’s attitude about life: he cares only about himself. The fact that he is constantly styling his hair or thinking about how cool he looks in his disco clothes seems to intrigue many women, but Tony seems used to this stardom, as no girl seems to be special to him. Tony simply doesn’t care that all these other women like him; his priority in life is to have fun in the present—eluding the future—and certainly never to be attached to a girl for longer than a night. This lack of interest in anyone but himself shows that Tony thinks he is better than everyone else and that he literally walks to the beat of his own drum. Although the movie has just begun, it is clear that these character traits are undeniably Tony’s.
While Tony obliviously walks down the street in his own world, the carefree feeling of “Stayin’ Alive” helps to show that his impulsive materialistic “needs” contribute to his self-centered character. Upon seeing a fancy new shirt, Tony is set on purchasing it, even though he has only a menial job as a paint salesman. Tony is so focused on the present, he even states, “fuck the future,” which shows again that his perception of the world is here and now. Buying material things that he probably cannot afford further suggests that Tony lacks a sense of control in his life. He clearly doesn’t have outlets for expression that are substantial and long-lasting because he is constantly looking for fulfillment in materialistic possessions. Although Tony seems oblivious to the realities of life—such as responsibility and respectability—the lyrics of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Life goin’ nowhere. Somebody help me,” hint that Tony is unhappy with his current lifestyle and hoping to find a better, more realistic life and not one just based on instant gratification.
Tony’s values and priorities are also reflected through the stereotype of the disco culture. At the disco club, Tony is depicted as the disco king, whom all spectators seem to aspire to be. Joseph Kupfer, a film scholar who has written about the subject states, “The music is presented as a unifying and invigorating force in Tony’s life” (173) and symbolizes Tony’s power, which shows that Tony’s priorities are based on the present “high” at the disco. The highly rhythmic, pulsating beat of the music illustrates a lack of control in Tony’s decision making. His rash decisions negate any thought of consequences in the future and confirm that Tony lives only for the present time. The repetitive nature of the disco music also mirrors Tony’s repetitive lifestyle; Claudia Gorbman agrees, “the regularity of the musical repetition emphasizes the regularity of the characters” and “the allegretto tempo and the lack of harmonic or rhythmic surprises only reinforce” Tony’s bland life (191). Because the music is viewed as a creative high, but in the end hardly substantial, it accurately depicts Tony’s current lifestyle: going to the disco every Saturday night and leaving everything on the dance floor, and then returning to the reality of a life that’s stuck in mediocrity.
The beginning of change in Tony’s life is characterized by the depiction of Tony as a childish teenager, set next to the depiction of Stephanie as the antithesis: a serious and refined woman who is much too mature for Tony. Every time Tony is seen in his element of dancing, the lively, carefree tone of the music serves to enhance the depiction of Tony’s lifestyle. On the other hand, Stephanie’s more mature character is indicated through the serious tone of the classical piano music to which she practices her dance. Stephanie points out that “there’s a world of difference [between them], not just chronologically, but emotionally, culturally, physically” (Kupfer 175) and clearly feels Tony is stuck in the life she used to live. Many perceive classical piano music as slow and boring and believe that all classical music was written by ancient composers for the elderly to enjoy sedately. Although this connotation doesn’t reflect Stephanie’s immediate character, it does reflect the fact that she makes decisions more wisely than Tony and that she realizes that she needs to change her life to be more mature. As SoHo Weekly News writer Stephen Schaefer concludes, while Stephanie “is attracted to [Tony] immediately, she is aware that he has no vision” and, once “becoming aware of his spirit, she tries to motivate him to get out” of his current situation (4). Stephanie’s helpful guidance reflects her more rational character and the fact that she is no longer living just in the moment, but has moved on to thinking more about the future.
Although Tony feels his life is going nowhere, the seriousness with which he takes dancing shows that he has the capacity to be a more mature person. Tony is able to control himself in an unusually delicate way when dancing to intimate songs, such as “More Than a Woman,” and the fact that he talks about practicing dancing often shows that he has discipline and dedication, even if those are rarely seen traits in him. Even in relation to girls, with whom Tony is obviously regularly involved, Tony is set on practicing his dancing, reminding “Annette that they will have to practice. . . . [W]hen Annette puts her hand on his shoulder, Tony pointedly looks at her and tells her, ‘That’s practice, Annette. I don’t mean datin’. I don’t mean socializin’. It means practice” (Kupfer 173). Tony’s talent in dancing connects him effortlessly to the music and even then, he is surprisingly not content with his current state of accomplishment. This dedicated side of Tony shows that he is not only in the process of changing into a more mature man, but that he has always had this trait within himself, and it is just a matter of releasing it in the right way. This seriousness is also seen when Tony questions Stephanie after she shows up five minutes late to one of their rehearsals. Even Stephanie doesn’t take dancing as seriously as Tony, who can’t believe she thinks it is “just dancin’.” It is “their rehearsals . . . that depict Tony’s talent and sensitivity” (Kupfer 175) and, furthermore, show that Tony has the potential to get out of the Brooklyn rut he is in.
As the movie progresses, the transitions in the music reflect the changes in the characters’ lives. Tony realizes that he cannot live off of the high of dancing forever—he is almost a grown man—but he seems to be stuck in a childish way of expressing himself: “With growing self awareness, Tony discloses that he would like to get the high he gets from dancing someplace else” (Kupfer 175). This change is also shown through the dance practice scene between Tony and Stephanie. Instead of upbeat disco music that reflects Tony’s childish life, they dance to “More Than a Woman,” where the lyrics suggest that Stephanie is Tony’s catalyst for change. Stephanie is not just another girl Tony is quick-stepping with, but rather a person who has figured out what she wants in life and has goals for herself that Tony finds admirable. During the movie, Tony seems unhappy with his current lifestyle, but is confused about how to change it. His friends don’t contribute to his mature change because they are also stuck in a life constantly fueled by disco and girls. Stephanie is finally a very different person in Tony’s life and helps to free him from the lifestyle in which his friends have cornered him.
Because “More Than a Woman” is played twice in the movie, it emphasizes the strong progression of Tony and Stephanie’s relationship over time. Both characters’ vulnerable sides are revealed when the song is played for the first time. The use of falsetto voice in “More Than a Woman” helps inspire the feeling that both characters are letting their guard down for each other. It is a common stereotype that men who have high voices are more sensitive and emotional, and this stereotype perfectly describes the change in Tony when he is dancing with Stephanie: although he is confident because of his talents, the “crude and rude Tony,” as defined by Los Angeles Times writer Susan King (1), becomes a more “sensitive and contemplative” person (Kupfer 175). The second time the song is played, it is clear both characters have accepted each other more fully because their gazes are longer and more genuine, and they even share a kiss. Tony is no longer a “macho leading man” (King 1) but an equal part to the dance duo. Tony is not just thinking about himself all the time, but rather thinking about the future of their friendship and how he can help it continue to flourish.
As Tony leaves the disco after winning the dance competition, “Stayin’ Alive” is played again, but this time it means that Tony is not just “Stayin’ Alive.” The song now symbolizes the freedom from the past that Tony has found, showing that he is now working to get away from the childish fun the lyrics of the song describe. Tony is no longer wrapped up in the beats of the song, as he was in the beginning of the movie; he has finally escaped. Although he is still changing, this progression shows that Tony has truly tried to make a better life for himself—and to some extent has succeeded. Tony’s journey to become a more mature individual inspires hope for any endeavor for change. No matter what the circumstances, Tony proves that there are ways to take control of one’s life and even turn it around. The goal in life is clearly not to “Stay Alive” but to rather live.
Gorbman, Claudia. “Narrative Film Music.” French Studies 60 (1980): 183-203. Print.
King, Susan. “After 30 Years, ‘Fever’ Still Burns.” Los Angeles Times. 18 Nov. 2007: E6. Print.
Kupfer, Joseph. “Moral Growth and Personal Narrative in Saturday Night Fever.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 34.4 (2007): 170-178. Print.
Schaefer, Stephen. “Dazed Days and Saturday Night Fever.” SoHo Weekly News. 29 Dec. 1977: 19-20, 42. Print.
Saturday Night Fever. Dir. John Badham. Perf. John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, and Barry Miller. Paramount Pictures, 1977.