Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Maybe I'm Just Cynical, but...

If you don't look at Saturday Night Fever closely, you might see the kind of thing that I saw previous to watching the film in class and discussing the different themes and meanings within the movie. At first glance, it looks like just another dance movie: lower class male + pretty girl he meets at a club/studio + talent for dance + dance competition/trial of some sort = stereotypical dance movie. However, this is not the case. Saturday Night Fever is truly unique, at least when it is put up for comparison with other dance movies, especially those produced within the last ten years or so. I haven't seen every single movie about dancing made since Saturday Night Fever, but many that I have seen follow the formula above and are tied up in a nice happy ending where everyone gets what they want or learns a valuable life lesson, whereas Saturday Night Fever keeps it gritty and realistic til the very end.

Take for example 2006's Step Up, in which tough street kid Tyler meets upper middle-class dancer Nora when he and some friends break into the art school she attends. The two end up working together, dancing to impress dance troupe scouts for a prospective career (Nora) and to gain admittance into said fancy art school to get off the streets and actually have a future (Tyler). It's been out for a while and even spawned a sequel by now, but I only saw the movie this past summer after hearing several of my classmates gush about how romantic it was during high school. I have to say, I really wasn't that impressed; the movie tries so hard to be street, bringing gang life, auto theft, and even a grudge killing into the script, but I thought it ultimately came off as weakly written and kind of cheesy. And of course, the main characters end up falling in love getting what they both want in an optimistic, cheery ending.

Another film such as this is 2001's Save the Last Dance, in which
Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas (classically trained privileged white female and lower class black male with high hopes and
dreams) team up to get Julia Stiles' character into Julliard. Julia gets into Julliard, Sean gets into Georgetown, the two star-crossed teens fall in love. The acting and script were somewhat redeemable in this movie, but surely this is starting to sound familiar. The point I'm trying to make is that these movies and a ton of others like them have the same essential elements as Saturday Night Fever, but lack one important theme: realism. Sure, Tony goes to the club and dances his little heart out and he is rather talented, but at the end of the night (and at the end of the film) he still lives with his parents in Brooklyn selling paint for a living. It would have been easy to write the script more optimistically, giving Tony a big break or getting him a girlfriend or even just giving him a genuine determination to do better by himself, but that isn't what happens, and that it what makes the movie worthy of its role in film history.

Sure, Saturday Night Fever is definitely the product of a more pessimistic decade while contemporary dance movies are (well, were) produced in more optimistic times. Maybe with the recession upon us, we'll see this trend change, but my prediction is that dance movies will stay optimistic. Watching these films is within itself a form of escapism for people with real lives and real problems, people who aren't going to Julliard anytime soon, people who go back to selling paint after the movie has ended. Maybe fluffy and romantic dance movies are not of as great a quality as Saturday Night Fever, but they have their role and purpose just the same. Everybody needs an escape sometimes, and those who can't dance watch.


  1. I totally agree that Saturday Night Fever is just like any other dance movie except for the ending. There have been tons of dance movies since, but I can't think of any that came before it. Did Saturday Night Fever set the basis for the dance movie genre? If so, why was the pessimistic ending left behind?

  2. I would like to know the same thing, Amy.

    Keep digging here, Julie. There is something here. I can feel it.