“I’ll tell you something funny,” revealed legendary radio personality Patrick Teoh, as he proceeded to describe how movie-goers walking out of the cinema after watching Saturday Night Fever (SNF) invariably moved with a strut … subconsciously or otherwise.
Such is the power and magic of that John Travolta dance flick that 40 years on, there are Malaysian kids on Facebook inserting the American actor’s surname into their names as prefixes and suffixes these days. Somehow, it’s unlikely that the Travolta craze is a response to his work in either Pulp Fiction or Swordfish.
When paint store clerk Tony Manero sashayed in his brown shoes along the pavement of his neighbourhood Brooklyn, New York (to the tune of Stayin’ Alive), during the opening sequence of the 1977 dance gem, it set the stage (literally) for a revolution in the arguably fading disco scene. Contrary to popular belief, disco began in the early 1970s, and was pretty much on the wane by the time Bee Gees introduced their falsettos, fashion and flash through the movie’s soundtrack.
Four decades on, and SNF’s impact (well, more, its soundtrack, truth be told) continues to reverberate, able to send adults into dizzying spells of nostalgia, or winces of reminiscence. A few notable Malaysians, who, either simply have an unbridled passion for the movie, or, launched careers courtesy of the flick, have come together to share their guilty pleasure for the dance movie of the times.
How deep is your love
“I was just fascinated by the music and dancing. I was 12 years old when I saw it, so I couldn’t grasp anything else,” revealed popular club DJ Jay Subramaniam. The 50-year-old watched the movie 15 to 20 times to learn the dance steps.
Star Media Group CEO/GMD Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai recalls being in Form Four when it screened. “I so badly wanted to watch it, and was first in line at the ticket counter at Rex Cinema (in Penang),” he said, intimating that, while the movie arrived in Malaysia later than its international screening date, the buzz was significant because its soundtrack had permeated the airwaves at the time.
Lydia Loo, a former dance instructor, and now a team leader for major fashion shows and beauty pageants in Toronto, Canada, has fond memories of how the movie affected her life. “The movie really resonated with me because I love to dance. It was about change, and no more secretly dancing in the bathroom where no one sees you. It was about freedom, showing off, expressing yourself, being bold and most of all, being yourself,” she said, revealing that she had watched the movie at least 10 times to learn the dance steps, so, she could teach her students.
Fellow dancer and artistic director of The Dance Company Kuala Lumpur, Peter Choo, echoes Loo’s sentiment: “The movie represented such a strong vibe because everything about it was so fresh. The dance scenes were also very motivating, which made the movie very special. It came out at the right time, during the disco era.”
As a movie though, and with the rose-tinted glasses of remembrance removed, SNF is pretty trite. The storyline was run-of-the-mill and the script was debatably abysmal.
“I was already aware of the movie and picked up on the disco trend reading American magazines, but the movie did nothing for me,” Teoh offered his damning assessment. “The movie left a big impact on me, but the script was terrible,” Wong agreed, given the benefit of hindsight.
By and large, it was the dance sequences which spoke to people, in particular, the carefree abandon in which they were executed. “The storyline did not have much impact on my life as a teenager. I was too young to relate to it, but the music and choreography inspired me a lot. It made me want to perform … it made me enjoy dance,” offered Choo.
Loo, 61, remembers the time as one when people led modest lives. “In those days, people were still very simple. It was not about mystery or action-packed movies, but enjoying what you like to do. And in this movie, it was about dancing and showing off,” she said.
You should be dancing
It’s fair to say that SNF gave birth to a then-new dance craze. And according to devout disco dancer Wong, all that mattered were the threads and cutting it on the dance floor. “It was the era of dressing up and dancing beautifully,” shared the former member of the now-defunct Cinta Disco, Rasa Sayang Hotel, Penang, revealing that, however, he didn’t have Travolta’s de rigueur white duds. But he did have two-tone pointed shoes, a fashion statement he has proudly embraced to this day, in fact.
For some, the clubs simply weren’t enough. Jay acquired the prerequisite bell bottoms and took part in dance competitions as a kid. While they were mainly family-centric affairs, he took his moves seriously. “They were held in places like Selangor Club, and there was a KLIM (powder milk brand from yesteryear) Kiddies Club, which held competitions, too,” he said. At 12, Jay became a dance competition winner.
He recalls the early and mid 1980s to be a time when club dancing involved some level of synchronised choreography. “People would dance with their partners with very similar moves. Nowadays, they don’t care what the other person is doing,” he stated.
Datuk Steven Ooi and his wife Datin Marilyn Goh, likewise, were swept up by the disco craze. Having watched the movie six times (even practising some moves in the cinema), the couple put their best foot forward in dance competitions, winning the first Penang Disco Champ Competition in 1978, and repeating that feat a year later in the Malaysian Open Disco Competition. He recalls the dance culture very fondly. “In those days, going to clubs meant actually getting up and dancing, not sitting around or simply swaying to the music,” said Ooi, who is presently foundation board member and trustee of Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.
“When we went to discos, we would already be on the dance floor by 9pm, having fun. Then, teenagers went to the discos to have a good time, and dancing was a healthy activity. Drug and alcohol abuse was not rampant. Nowadays, clubbers only start trickling in at 11pm or midnight,” he added, painting a clear picture of the social setting then.
For others, the movie inspired them to dance on a much more serious level. Loo won the domestic title for a disco dancing competition and went on to represent Malaysia in a global contest at the Empire Ballroom in Leicester Square, London. She won 10th spot out of 32 contestants at the 1979 EMI World Disco Dancin’ Championship. “I participated with no expectations of winning as I wasn’t sure what to expect. Coming out in the top 10 was a great achievement in itself,” she said, adding that the experience is indescribable, given that it was her first time overseas. “BBC interviewed me on how I felt winning a top 10 spot from a country many people had not heard of. They were amazed that my spoken English was so good, not realising that Malaysia is a Commonwealth country,” offered the once-hailed “disco queen”, adding that she was somewhat clueless, and only found out upon arriving in London that she required a costume for the competition, hastily cobbling something together in the end.
Choo followed in Loo’s footsteps and took part the following year in the same competition, faring better than his predecessor. He came to know about the competition while frequenting Hotel Malaya’s Where Else Disco, where he learnt that the EMI Malaysia World Disco Dancin’ Championship was aspiring to unearth a home-grown representative.
“My friends persuaded me to give it a try, just for experience’s sake. I was so young and naive that winning was not even something I thought about. When you are young and inexperienced, you just want to try new things, and experience is simply something that comes indirectly with it,” shared the 56-year-old.
Needless to say, he topped the domestic contest and soon found himself at the London Hippodrome, singeing the dance floor with 40 international competitors. If he hadn’t taken the domestic leg of the competition seriously, Choo found himself desperate to up his game in Blighty. “I added figure skating and jazz elements into my disco movements,” he said, realising later, that was perhaps what drew him apart from the competition.
“During the night of finals, everything went well for me and it was a very good experience to be able to perform on a dance floor that was so similar to the one in SNF,” he continued. His masterstroke of combining figure skating and jazz with disco earned him fourth place.
While the dance aspect of SNF profited some, others cashed in on the music … which invariably served the dance, anyway. Teoh may not have been the first person to start the mobile disco (a service which included sound and light systems, and DJ) concept in Malaysia, but he is certainly the most recognised, what with the success of Music Machine up to the late 1980s.
“I capitalised on the disco phenomenon, which affected the world, it seemed, by being one of the earliest disco service providers,” he explained, sharing how it was the age of the annual dinner and dance, and house parties. Teoh revealed that the idea for it surfaced when he was emceeing for the 6As awards ceremony (now known as the Kancil Awards, which recognises advertising excellence) sometime in the 1970s.
“The Revolvers were playing, and when they took a break, as bands do, I set up a turntable and played some of my records. Once I started, the band never got the chance to get on again … everyone was dancing away,” he said with a smile, recalling that watershed moment when the mobile disco idea began to take shape for him. That success earned him more gigs, and once he conceptualised it properly, Music Machine took off.
With the stories surfacing from discotheques in Western nations, hedonism may seem inextricably associated with the dance culture, but Teoh revealed that here in Malaysia, it was all about just letting loose and swaying away, especially in smaller towns.
“Malacca was a place we played often, and because they didn’t have much entertainment there, these parties were things to look forward to,” said the 70-year-old. Dewan Hang Tuah was a popular venue, and according to him, the indulgence got as far as consuming Coca-Cola or soft drinks … beer and liquor were rarely served. “If there were mobile phones then, it would be amazing to see some of the pictures from those parties. Because there was no air-conditioning, you could actually see steam rising from the people on the dance floor,” he related.
SNF not only gave birth to a new dance craze – it also revolutionised fashion and dress sense. “Everyone was combing their hair like John Travolta, and big collars were in. People dressed in their Sunday finest … on a Saturday night,” recalled Jay.
Wong unequivocally agreed; “The movie brought about a new subculture. We all wore floral shirts and tried to look stylish … there was still an element of flower power there.”
Loo chipped in; “Bell bottoms came in solid colours. Guys were wearing the hairstyle John Travolta wore in the movie. I think this was when men’s shoes had heels, because my boyfriend had them. For the girls, they were not that conservative, as they needed to be able to dance in their dresses.”
There was clearly an element of craving acceptance and wanting to be part of the in crowd, which is why some degree of conformity existed. “People wore shirts with the top few buttons unbuttoned, and of course, with coats and aired pants. People made an effort to dress up,” Choo stated.
So encompassing was the dress style, that everyone, it seemed, welcomed it, and footwear was just as much a part of the equation. “It marked the first dramatic change in fashion, and that cannot be overstated. Bell bottom pants … and platform shoes were in. Every dog and mother wore them … even I did,” said Teoh, with a cheeky grin.
If I can’t have you
Disco dancing, in its purest form, may be dead and buried (or grossly dated), but strains of the music are still apparent in the best of pop music today, filtered though the hands of Jamiroquai, Justin Timberlake and the Scissor Sisters, among others. House music, too, is largely rooted in the genre.
But the original soundtrack for SNF still stands tall as a testament to the organic, intricate and melodic quality of disco. “Bee Gees single-handedly gave the music its life,” Jay professed.
Choo reckons that the movie’s impact may have dipped, but the music has kept its interest alive. “Disco is such a strong element that it will not die, and every now and again, there will still be music videos or music that will be inspired by the disco era,” he opined. “I thought the music was great … it just makes you want to sing it all the time. Great beats, catchy tunes … danceable,” Loo chorused.
Hardcore fan, Wong, insists it was really the music that did it for him. “My phone’s ringtone is How Deep Is Your Love. Bee Gees is my all-time favourite band. If you tune in to a retro radio station today, you can still hear those songs.”
And nothing says it more succinctly. So, turn on, tune in and drop out … the mercury is rising once again. Happy 40th, SNF!
What other fans say
Saw Teong Hin, filmmaker
I watched Saturday Night Fever at Rex cinema during its first run in Penang. It felt very relevant the way it highlighted the escapism necessary to cope with the daily grind of life. Like everyone else, I love the soundtrack! With varying degrees of success, the dancing was also shamelessly mimicked. The initial silliness of pointing in the air soon gave way to a sense of liberation. The movie has achieved that certain alchemy, where universal issues, star power, pioneering dance moves and a great soundtrack worked so wonderfully together. Its legacy is not surprising.
Datuk Nancie Foo, producer and actress
I have watched Saturday Night Fever so many times, I’ve lost count! It didn’t have much of a storyline but it was a really good dance movie for its time. It was released during an exciting period of our youth – the disco era. It had a great soundtrack and fantastic choreography. It boasted of an energy that appealed to young people of all generations. My favourite song is Night Fever. I literally lived Tony Manero’s life during our old Tin Mine discotheque days, but you have to watch the movie to understand it.
Selina Yeop Jr, public relations maven
I watched it when I was really, really young (enough said!) with my mother. I know, my mum was very progressive from way back then! This movie showed me that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. Persistence is the key to everything. I love everything about Saturday Night Fever, but it was the songs that nailed it for me. It marked the beginning of disco! And dance has evolved from there. The Bee Gees wrote phenomenal songs that set new standards to the term ‘evergreen’. My all-time favourite number is More Than A Woman; it is just too smooth!
It was the first movie I ever watched in the cinema. Unfortunately, I was too young to understand the nuances or remember what it meant, culturally. But I do remember being mesmerised by all the beautiful dancing, which up till then, I had only been exposed to ballet. It’s the classic story about the underdog with a talent that finally makes it in the big discotheque. We all want to believe that we have that ‘something’ that makes us shine, no? Of course, the Bee Gees soundtrack stayed with me. And I have done many shows with songs from this movie.
Kavita Sidhu, actress and fashion designer
I watched it in the mid-80s when I was very young and at that time, it was more about the music and dance that captured my attention. I just recently watched it again, and I could finally understand why it was such a brilliant movie. Travolta gave a breakout performance; his dance moves were just classic and ahead of its time! It was so camp, yet masculine, and I think it’s a cross generational film that appeals to all. My husband, Roberto (Guiati) absolutely loves it and he was born in 1980! People still listen to the music by the Bee Gees, and it has such a nostalgic feel that you want to get up and dance.