This Day In History: December 14

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The film Saturday Night Fever premieres at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on December 14, 1977. Shining a bright light on the world of disco dance, it would become a pop-culture juggernaut.

The film drew inspiration from a largely fictional 1976 New York magazine article entitled, "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," written by journalist Nik Cohn. It detailed the dreams and struggles of a talented, young Italian-American disco dancer and his scruffy entourage in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

In a 2008 interview on BBC Radio 4, pop star Robin Gibb, whose music was featured in the film, confessed to making it through only the first 30 minutes of the world premiere—and to never having seen the rest of the picture in the decades that followed. However, millions of Americans did make it through the film that made a movie star out of 23-year-old John Travolta and propelled the already famous Mr. Gibb—who with his brothers Maurice and Barry formed the Bee Gees, the era's most prominent disco-pop group—to a level of superstardom rarely achieved before or since.

Well-cast, well-acted and well-directed, Saturday Night Fever earned positive reviews from many critics, including the late Gene Siskel, who called it his favorite film ever. But whatever its other cinematic merits, even the film’s strongest proponents would agree that it was the pulsing disco soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever that made it a work of lasting historical significance.

From its iconic opening sequence featuring John Travolta strutting down a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, sidewalk to the tune of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” to its unforgettable dance numbers set in the fictional 2001 Odyssey discotheque, the music complemented the action in Saturday Night Fever as perfectly as if it were written for the movie, even though most of it wasn’t. In fact, other than “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” every song that appeared in Saturday Night Fever had been written, recorded and in some cases released before the film ever went into production. Among those songs were: The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” (1976); KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” (1975); Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1976); and the Bee Gees’ own “You Should Be Dancin'” (1976).

Two songs the Bee Gees wrote shortly before hearing about Saturday Night Fever—”If I Can’t Have You” and “How Deep Is Your Love”—would be among the four #1 pop hits launched by the movie’s landmark soundtrack album. “How Deep Is Your Love” was the debut single from the album, released fully a month before the movie itself and hitting #1 on the Billboard pop chart just a week after the movie’s opening. This now-familiar approach to marketing a movie through its soundtrack, and vice versa, was highly innovative at the time. Indeed, the promotional synergy between the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and movie is widely credited with helping to revolutionize both movie and music marketing.

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