A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Saturday Night Fever is a more mature film than the catchy disco soundtrack would have you believe. Though this movie helped put disco (and star John Travolta) on the map, the original theatrical version is full of strong language, sex, and violence. The characters take part in gang fights as well as racist and sexist behavior, and there's a disturbing gang rape scene in the back of a car. Characters drink, smoke, and talk about sex; nudity includes bare breasts and a naked backside. Frequent swearing includes "f--k," "c--t," "s--t," "p---y," and the "N" word. Though Tony ends up seeking a healthier path, his family's Catholic religion has nothing to do with it; in fact, his brother, a priest, quits the clergy, declaring that he has no faith anymore. While a tamer, PG-rated cut of the film was once released on VHS, the R-rated version is the now the only one widely available.
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What's the story?
In SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, 19-year-old Brooklynite Tony Manero (John Travolta) lives uncomfortably at home with his large Italian-American family, works at a local paint store, hangs out with his troublemaking pals, and treats marriage-minded girlfriend Annette (Donna Pescow) with contempt, partially because she won't have sex with him. Tony's main escape is on the illuminated floor of a glittery club called 2001 Odyssey, where he's the star, and his dance moves take him to a fantasy world away from a dead-end routine. While dancing, Tony meets a local girl named Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) who has big plans to move up in life via dance lessons and relocating to the city. Tony coldly dumps Annette as his dance partner in the club's upcoming competition and starts training with Stephanie. She challenges Tony to grow up -- but Stephanie's no angel; it's hinted that she's also the mistress of her married boss. With his gang's ongoing feuds, girlfriend crises, and family problems, Tony has a fateful turning point on the night of the big dance contest.
Is it any good?
Despite the Bee Gees' disco music and bell-bottom trousers, this is a tough, serious-minded drama about restless, sometimes violent young men on the sordid side of New York City. Travolta fought to keep his character not just vulnerable but also raw and occasionally cruel, and that's why Tony Manero works so well (Travolta received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). The story packs a punch and gets pretty edgy -- it's not a great pick for younger children looking for Dance Dance Revolution cues.
Even Hollywood producers thought Saturday Night Fever was unusually profane and explicit. When it was released on VHS, it was in an edited, PG-rated form (which would be considered at least PG-13 today), with alternate versions of certain scenes that director John Badham shot for network TV airings (Badham has said he thinks the PG scenes have better acting). In 2002, the R-rated edition appeared on DVD, which is the more widely available version today. Parents should know it really is more severe.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Tony finds value and self-esteem on the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever. How does his home life, where he's considered the black sheep, affect his life and behavior?
What's the significance of the fact that Stephanie isn't the proverbial "uptown girl" outsider? How does the fact that she's from Tony's neighborhood affect her impact on him?
How much of this storyline is specific to New York City and its social classes, and how much is universal -- especially the similarities to other films about at-risk youth, from Rebel Without a Cause to 8 Mile?
Why do you think this film and its soundtrack are still so popular today?
- In theaters: December 16, 1977
- On DVD or streaming: October 8, 2002
- Cast: Donna Pescow, John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney
- Director: John Badham
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Arts and Dance
- Run time: 119 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: strong language, sexuality/nudity and some drug content.
- Last updated: May 18, 2020
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