Monday, October 19, 2015

Suggestion Unboxed - the Bronze Age Films of John Travolta

Colin Jones: Who's The Best -- Grease or Saturday Night Fever

Edo Bosnar: Colin, I think we should add Urban Cowboy to that list, for a perfect trifecta of popular trend-setting Travolta vehicles.



Anonymous said...

Oops - after making that comment I remembered there was a "Versus" feature in BAB so really it should have been Grease vs. Saturday Night Fever. I've never seen 'Urban Cowboy' and I never saw SNF or Grease till years later but if you were living in the UK in 1978 you couldn't escape the hits from Grease - 'You're The One That I Want' was #1 for nine weeks and 'Summer Nights' was #1 for seven weeks, even somebody like me who wasn't really a music fan couldn't help but notice the ubiquity of Travolta/Newton-John. Saturday Night Fever was pretty big too - the soundtrack was #1 for 18 weeks - but that seemed to pass me by. I think the songs from Grease were more accessible to a 12 year-old - I don't think I even heard the Bee Gees songs but if I did I'd probably have thought all that falsetto singing was a bit weird. In the late '80s Barry Gibb told a British newspaper that Saturday Night fever was "a pile of sh*t" and a few years ago I heard him being interviewed on the radio and he insisted that the Bee Gees sang "white soul" not disco.

Humanbelly said...

It's funny how HUGE two of these three films were in their hey-dey, and now they're sort of cinematic/cultural artifacts. I dunno-- I saw GREASE and SNF when they came out, and UBCBY when they showed it on TV, and I just didn't love any of them. Admittedly, I was smack in that group of guys who generally wanted to throttle Travolta for the ridiculous teeny-bopper crush attention he got-- and was reeeeeally put off by the Vinnie Barbarino affectations that seemed to sneak into all of his other roles. So I may have been predisposed to having a jaundiced eye for most things Travolta at the time.

In order of personal enjoyment?

Now, GREASE is largely a hoot, and a lark, and has all kinds of delightful performances. And "You're the One That I Want" faaar outshines the finale of the original musical--(I did a longish run of it, like, 25 years ago-- and it is an absurdly fun show to actually be in )-- but I hate the ending so deeply that it absolutely kills the value of the rest of the show for me. Ruins it utterly. "Sell yourself out; conform; and Be Popular." The film was the first time I'd seen the show, and even then I was aghast that somehow this was being perceived as the "happy" ending for poor Sandy. For god's sake, she sings a heartbreaking little reprise/lament- "Goodbye to Sandra Dee"- as she decides to jettison who she feels she truly is in order to fit in with this rough crowd. Just the antithesis of ANY kind of message that should ever be presented to young women, regardless of when it was being produced.


The other two? Enh. Saturday Night Fever was so flippin' bleak, and I had a lot of trouble getting myself to like the protagonist. And the story just felt like an updated, R-rated take on a standard old-hollywood type of plot-line. It was remarkable, though, in capturing that intensely blazing, truly-brief, pop-cultural comet that was our Disco Era, y'know? I mean, I'm an absolute clunk of a social dancer and it made ME want to get out and hit the lighted-plexi-panel dance floor! Urban Cowboy--- I don't remember much about. Small town kid comes to city, meets girl, loses girl to bad guy, gets girl back again-? Is that about right? I do remember that some people thought Travolta was in fact better in this film-- but his celebrity stock may have already been on the wane, IIRC. (Boy, and it wasn't long before he just fell plumb off the map, was it? Is that when he was eaten by Scientology-?)


david_b said...

Good points Colin.., I'd agree on the 'white soul' regard by Barry.., just wish they weren't talked into making Sgt Pepper. That was their industry death knell.

I liked Travolta quite a bit in 'Cowboy'.., seemed like he was able to stretch his dramatic skills a bit more in that than the others. I haven't seen the other films in their entirety, but the non-musical scenes I have seen were quite good.

Garett said...

Grease is a fun movie with some great catchy tunes. I've never been able to make it through Saturday Night Fever, and haven't seen Urban Cowboy.

For the soundtracks, while I like the songs on Grease, my band has played more from SNF.
SNF: Disco Inferno, Stayin' Alive, and Boogie Shoes.
Grease: You're the One That I Want
Boogie Shoes actually goes over really well with dance crowds, even though I don't think it's one of the more famous songs by KC and the Sunshine Band. SNF also has If I Can't Have You by Yvonne Elliman, and 2 others I like by Bee Gees: You Should be Dancing, and the first song I ever remember being my favorite as a kid, Jive Talkin'.

Edo Bosnar said...

Well, of these three, I'd have to say Saturday Night Fever by default, because it's the only one of them I actually watched all the way through - twice! (Both times well after their popularity, when I was already in high school in the '80s.) And yes, that means I'm one of those apparently few people in the English-speaking world who have never seen Grease - a fact of which I'm a bit proud now, just like I boast of never having seen ET, either.
Anyway, I agree with HB about SNF: first, it's not that good, and if you take out the dance scenes, it is a very depressing, almost dark movie. It's surprising to me how popular it got, and that it was presented - at least that's how it seemed to me - as this sort of feel-good film that defined an era.

The reason I thought Urban Cowboy should also be considered is because I just remember the outsized splash all three of these films had on popular culture. SNF and Urban Cowboy both turned the disco and country bar sub-cultures into mainstream trends, while Grease just magnified the whole '50s nostalgia thing that was going on in the mid- to late 1970s. And Colin, those two hits from the Grease soundtrack were mega-popular and ubiquitous in the US as well.

J.A. Morris said...

I'm with HB on Grease, the ending is awful, even if some songs are catchy. My other problem with Grease is that even as a kid (I was 7 when it was released), I knew it had some of the oldest "teenagers" in film history. Travolta was only 24 when it was released, the rest of the cast was pushing 30 or past it.

And I hated the disco-era Bee Gees in 1977 and still do today. So I'm not a fan of SNF. But I will admit to liking the "don't hit my hair" scene. But it can't be all bad, because it inspired this SNL sketch:

So I'm going with Urban Cowboy. Travolta is good in it and UC is also the film that "discovered" Debra Winger.

Humanbelly said...

Ha! With GREASE, J.A., from what I've read, the age-thing you're talking about really was a conscious choice for the original musical. It was conceived/written as a musical about teenagers-- with the idea that they would all be played by actors in their 30's (more or less). The whole thing is indeed a "memory play", with an opening reunion framing sequence setting us up to go back to Rydell High-- so there's always a feeling of "what we were then" coming through the filter of "what we are now". Buuuuut that's an easy conceit to lose track of even with a solid, tight, well-structured script. . . and I can't say that GREASE is even close to making that cut.


Edo Bosnar said...

J.A., geez, I totally remember Samurai Night Fever ... guest-starring none other other than O.J. Simpson...
...and Debra Winger's career was launched when she was cast as Wonder Girl, so there! :P

Redartz said...

Must agree with many of the sentiments expressed so far...but to throw in a few thoughts:

Grease- my favorite of the three. Really liked the soundtrack,and of course the LP had a fold-open feature with movie stills. As HB observed so cogently, the ending seemed troublesome (even thought this as a 17-year-old viewer). Also noted the obvious ages of much of the cast (Frankie Avalon?!). Nonetheless, I thought then (and still do) that overall it's a fun film, with some fine comic elements. Partly sentimental- my girlfriend at the time was a big theatre aficianado, and she convinced me to enter a "Grease" 50's dance contest with her when the film was out, and hot. Let's just say Sid Ceasar would have tapped my shoulder very quickly. (Aside to HB- always enjoy hearing of your theatrical exploits, which role/roles did you play in Grease?)

Saturday Night Fever- ranked second for me. Not a big Bee Gees fan, and didn't see the film until years after it's release. As Edo said, it does seem rather dark. The opening sequence with Travolta strutting up the street is great...

Urban Cowboy- also seen only years after it's release. Okay film, and worth seeing; but honestly I can't really recall much memorable about the movie at this time...

Humanbelly said...

Ah, it was in my trim & handsome (relative) youth, Redartz-- I was Kenickie (the Greased Lightnin' guy. . . ). It's really a great show for that group of guys, as they're onstage a heck of a lot. I'll tell you, though-- I think the age-convention aspect can't realistically stretch past the late-30's, 'cause Hand-Jive and a lot of those other high-octane group numbers are definitely more than even an early middle-aged body can take on with confidence. . . let alone youthful abandon. ("Can't. . . breathe!. . . Can't. . . breathe!. . . ")


WardHill Terry said...

Saturday Night Fever is supposed to be dark. It belongs with other shot-in-New York films of that era; "Taxi Driver,""Mean Streets,""Dog Day Afternoon," etc. It's a portrait of young adults who are desperate to escape the narrowly defined confines of their little town, even though their little town is a part of one of the largest cities in the world. They find meaning and escapism in dancing. It's a story of dead-end jobs, stilted ambition, and suicide. That it was such a mega-hit almost defies probabilities! One of these days, I'm going to pitch Doug and Karen a feature about disco in the comics. I know my collection has stories with Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen, Clark Kent, Ronnie Raymond, and even Metron of the New Gods at a disco!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'd probably have to go with's just more fun, and a lot of the songs are pretty catchy (my favourites being "Greased Lightnin", "Look at me I'm Sandra Dee" and "Beauty School Dropout").

Anonymous said...

Uh, that last comment was me, Mike Wilson...I must've left my brain in the voting booth (Election Day here in Canada!)

Humanbelly said...

I am going to say a word in Mr. Travolta's favor ('cause I was probably a bit harsh on him)-- I'd read a long time back that he really is/was a very, very disciplined, attentive, process-focused actor-- which is tough work. Tons of writing and notes in his script, always did the off-set homework, didn't rely on the rehearsals to learn his lines, etc, etc. I've always admired that level of diligence and commitment to what can really be necessary artistic drudge-work. You always like to see that kind of surrender to the process in a big star, 'cause it suggests they don't consider themselves "bigger" than the art they're involved in.

Strangely enough, I heard somewhere in an interview that Vin Diesel is much the same-- although I'd love to have that confirmed.


pfgavigan said...


Well, what's the topic today?

Best Travolta film, Grease, Urban Cowboy or . . . . .

Oh no . . . oh merciful god no!!!

Mental shields failing . . . memories crushing me under their weight.

That soundtrack, I couldn't escape it!! It was everywhere in 1977!! WLS wouldn't stop playing it!! It was in the restaurants! Every dorm room had it on full blast. One sorority had every member simultaneously play it!! Birds fell from the sky, the sun darkened and the earth cracked and heaved.

I fell into a dark crevasse that closed in upon me and I was . . . Buried Alive . . Buried Alive . . .

I vote for Urban Cowboy and that we never speak of this again!



The Prowler said...

The internet ate my comment. Swear. Rather than try to recreate it, I'm just going to type what I'm feeling at this moment.

Of the three films, the music of each is/was really strong and very much a part of what was the impact of each movie. Yet, only one was a musical. Grease. The other two were stories set in particular places, dance clubs, one a disco, the other a honky tonk. It would be hard to pick which one had the most lasting impact. I would have to say Grease. This is how I see it. Grease started as a musical. Got popular enough to become a movie. Once Olivia Newton-John became attached, the story changed. Songs were added (Hopelessly Devoted To You & Hot Summer Nights?). Changes to the story were made. IIRC, Kenickie did Greased Lightning in the original. Danny never went to the dance with Sandy. Anyhoo, when the movie became popular, the story was reworked again for High Schools. Now, it's very popular in Junior Highs!!!

Wella Wella, tell me more, tell me more.....

(Nothing ever changes for all we say
It's the same tomorrow as yesterday
Yes all around I see is war
I can't stand this anymore
Those days are over, those days are over
Those days are over, those days are over)

Joseph said...

At the risk of being viewed as a contrarian, Blow Out might be Travolta's best Bronze Age movie. DePalma at the top of his form and very Hitchcockian.

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