Disco movies ruled in the late 1970s and early '80s. Saturday Night Fever, Thank God It's Friday, Can't Stop the Music, Xanadu, Roller Boogie, Skatetown U.S.A., Disco Godfather, Staying Alive, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and The Last Days of Disco are the best disco films.
Disco music hit its peak in the mid to late 1970s. Love it or hate it, disco left its unique mark in the world of music and popular culture. Here are ten disco movies that no fan of the genre should ever miss. "I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes..."
Saturday Night Fever (Paramount, 1977)
John Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a 19-year-old backseat romeo who lives with his parents in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, New York. By day Tony works for a small neighborhood paint store, but when darkness falls Tony becomes the king of disco, plying his considerable dancing talents at 2001 Odyssey, the local hotspot. Tony bums around with pals Bobby C. (Barry Miller), Joey (Joseph Calli) and Double J. (Paul Pape), later entering a disco dance contest with the uppity Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney). Travolta blows away the field in this one, becoming the Fred Astaire of disco as he dances his way to local fame in his spiffy white suit and platform shoes, all the while knocking back screwdrivers, tangling with gang members and romancing the girls. Saturday Night Fever's mega-selling soundtrack is loaded with disco hits, including "Stayin' Alive," "More Than a Woman," "You Should Be Dancing" and "Night Fever" (the Bee Gees), "Boogie Shoes" (KC and the Sunshine Band), "If I Can't Have You" (Yvonne Elliman), "Open Sesame" (Kool & the Gang), "Disco Duck" (Rick Dees) and the burning "Disco Inferno" (the Trammps).
Director: John Badham
Review: "The movie's musical and dancing sequences are dazzling. Travolta and Miss Gorney are great together, and Travolta does one solo (in an unbroken shot) that the audiences cheered for. The movie was directed by John Badham ('The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars'), and his camera occupies the dance floor so well that we really do understand the lure of the disco world, for all of the emptiness and cruelty the characters find there." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (12/16/77)
On DVD: Saturday Night Fever 30th Anniversary Special Collector's Edition (Paramount, 2007)
Advance one sheet movie poster: Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Thank God It's Friday (Columbia, 1978)
Valerie Landsburg, Terri Nunn, Chick Vennera, Donna Summer, Mark Lonow, Andrea Howard, Paul Jabara, Jeff Goldblum, Robin Menken, Debra Winger, et al., all congregate at Los Angeles' hottest new disco, The Zoo, to strut their stuff, shake their booty and usher in the weekend. Ray Vitte as deejay Bobby Speed hosts the live show and spins the records, with such disco tunes as "Too Hot ta Trot" and "Brick House" (the Commodores), "I Wanna Dance" (Marathon), "Love Masterpiece" (Thelma Houston), "Thank God It's Friday" (Love & Kisses) and "Last Dance" (Donna Summer) filling the dance floor. Thank God It's Friday was filmed at Osko's at 333 S. La Cienega Boulevard in L.A., which boasted four big dance floors. Osko's – like disco music – later went the same way of the passenger pigeon, demolished in the early 1990s and replaced by a Loehmann's department store. Look for Chick Vennera's spectacular disco dance romp on the tops of cars in The Zoo's parking lot.
Director: Robert Klane
Review: "'Thank God It's Friday' has the form of a disco movie, but it's really a record album with live-action liner notes featuring a dozen young actors, most of whom are quite nice and, as yet, unknown, and a few who are better known but not as impressive as the new people...The dècor of the Zoo is suitably garish and looks dangerously flammable. I would have felt easier while watching the movie if I'd known where the exits were." - Vincent Canby, The New York Times (5/19/78)
On DVD: Thank God It's Friday (Sony, 2006)
Polish one sheet movie poster: Thank God It's Friday (1978)
Can't Stop the Music (Associated Film, 1980)
Get set for a discofest in this musical comedy, which constitutes a rousing pseudo biopic of the Village People: Alex the G.I. (Alex Briley), David the Construction Worker (David Hodo), Glenn the Leatherman (Glenn Hughes), Randy the Cowboy (Randy Jones), Felipe the Indian (Felipe Rose) and Ray the Police Officer (Ray Simpson). Also on hand are Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Sand, Tammy Grimes, June Havoc, Barbara Rush, Jack Weston and Leigh Taylor-Young. The Village People perform "I Love You to Death," "Milkshake," "Liberation," "Can't Stop the Music," "Magic Night" and their mega hit "Y.M.C.A." Also lending their musical talents are the Ritchie Family ("Give Me a Break," "Sophistication") and David London ("Samantha," "The Sound of the City"). It's fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A! – and you get extra points for doing that thing with your hands.
Director: Nancy Walker
Review: "A lot of 'Can't Stop the Music,' which opens at the Ziegfeld today, seems aimed at small children; in fact, the movie's occasional smutty jokes may be its only real concession to an older crowd. Miss Perrine and Steve Guttenberg play old friends who want to make it big in the music business, and together they assemble the Village People. Miss Perrine finds the individual members of the group wandering around New York, dressed, respectively, as an Indian, a construction worker, and so on." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times (6/20/80)
On DVD: Can't Stop the Music (Anchor Bay, 2002)
One sheet movie poster: Can't Stop the Music (1980)
Xanadu (Universal, 1980)
Greek mythology meets disco in this fantasy movie starring Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck. The latter plays Sonny Malone, an album cover artist who falls for the goddess Kira (Newton-John), who has mysteriously shown up on an album shoot photo. Together with an older gent named Danny McGuire, Sonny opens up a flashy disco club. Roller dancing and plenty of tunes punctuate this extravaganza, including numbers by Olivia Newton-John, the Electric Light Orchestra, Cliff Richard and the Tubes. Newton-John and ELO perform the title song "Xanadu," one of the movie's highlights. Gene Kelly and disco?
Director: Robert Greenwald
Review: "Xanadu is a stupendously bad film whose only salvage is the music." Variety (1980)
On DVD: Xanadu - Magical Music Edition (Universal, 2008)
British quad movie poster: Xanadu (1980)
Roller Boogie (United Artists, 1979)
Linda Blair – apparently fully recovered from her supernatural, potty mouth ordeal in The Exorcist (1973) – appears as Terry Barkley, a southern California rich kid who's headed for Julliard. Instead, Terry decides to run away from home, becoming a little roller boogie mama with all the right moves at Jammer's, the local roller disco rink. Jim Bray, Jimmy Van Patten and Kimberly Beck join the hooker-bedecked Blair in the roller boogie action, with Beverly Garland and Roger Perry playing her concerned parents. Barbara Guedel doubled for Ms. Blair in the big roller boogie contest. Cher's driving "Hell on Wheels" powers the soundtrack, with "Boogie Wonderland," "Top Jammer," "We Got the Power," "Rollin' Up a Storm," "Love Fire" and "The Roller Boogie" also on the playlist. Watch this baby and you'll be ready to strap on the blades and motor down your own Venice Beach boardwalk.
Director: Mark L. Lester
Review: "A warm hearty welcome to 'Roller Boogie,' the dopiest movie of the year. This is a film about blithe young Californians who skate, just skate, that's all they do...'Roller Boogie,' which opens today at the Forum and other theaters, stars chunky little Linda Blair and was directed by Mark Lester, who seems to have expended most of his energies in efforts to make the leading lady look as leggy as the extras." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times (12/19/79)
On DVD: Roller Boogie (MGM, 2004)
One sheet movie poster: Roller Boogie (1979)
Skatetown, U.S.A. (Columbia, 1979)
Competing skate gangs fill the big screen in this roller disco movie featuring Scott Baio, Ron Palillo, Maureen McCormick, Greg Bradford, Patrick Swayze (in his film debut), Flip Wilson and Ruth Buzzi. Best described as Romeo and Juliet on skates – or maybe a bladed West Side Story – Skatetown, U.S.A. actually features a "skate off" pitting Greg Badford's Stan against Patrick Swayze's tough guy Ace Johnson. Oooh, a skate off! The plot may be silly, but the soundtrack delivers, with the Jackson's leading the charge with "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)." Other disco-type songs include "Boogie Wonderland" (Earth, Wind & Fire and the Emotions), "Feelin' Alright" (Dave Mason), "Boogie Nights" (Heatwave), "Roller Girl" (John Sebastian) and "Skatetown USA" (Dave Mason and Carolyn Dennis).
Director: William A. Levey
Review: "What happens to stars of bad TV shows like 'The Brady Bunch,' 'Welcome Back Kotter,' and 'Happy Days'? They end up in bad movies like Skatetown, U.S.A. This nonsense had the dubious honor of being the first film to cash in on the minor roller-disco fad of the late 1970s and featured such great has-beens as Wilson, Buzzi, Palillo, and a host of talentless actors." - TV Guide (2010)
On DVD: Not commercially available
Disco Godfather (Transvue Pictures, 1979)
Rudy Ray Moore stars as Tucker Williams, a retired cop who finds his true calling as a deejay at the Blueberry Hill disco. But when Tucker's nephew Bucky (Julius J. Carry III) runs afoul of the powerful new drug Angel Dust, the policeman-turned-deejay swings into action, taking names and kicking dope dealer butt. Rudy Ray Moore is a riot in this blaxploitation crime/disco action film, billing himself as "your tower of power, the man of the hour, too darn sweet to be sour!" Look for the scene where the LP soundtrack album from Saturday Night Fever is used as a coke bowl at a drug party.
Director: J. Robert Wagoner
Review: "After doing a bunch of Dolemite films, the legend Rudy Ray Moore put out this late '70s gem called Disco Godfather, a wonderful cheesefest that is so bad, it’s good." - Bill Gordon, Odd Culture (11/18/07)
On DVD: Disco Godfather (Xenon, 2002)
Staying Alive (Paramount, 1983)
John Travolta returns as Tony Manero in this sequel to Saturday Night Fever, with Cynthia Rhodes, Finola Hughes and Steve Inwood also in the cast. Now a professional dance instructor in Manhattan, Tony aspires to snag a role in Satan's Alley, the hottest new Broadway musical. Former macho man Tony seems to be a bit sissified in this outing, wearing a headband and prancing around in frilly costumes. And where the hell are Joey, Double J., Annette and the rest of the Verazzano Bridge gang? Saturday Night Fever fans will probably be disappointed in this "six years later" sequel, but the music is good, featuring such Bee Gee tunes as "I Love You Too Much," "The Woman in You," "Breakout" and of course "Stayin' Alive." Staying Alive was lampooned in MAD magazine as "Staying Awake."
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Review: "'Staying Alive' is a big disappointment. This sequel to the gutsy, electric 'Saturday Night Fever' is a slick, commercial cinematic jukebox, a series of self-contained song-and-dance sequences that could be cut apart and played forever on MTV – which is probably what will happen." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (7/15/83)
On DVD: Saturday Night Fever/Staying Alive Double Feature (Paramount, 2007)
Lobby card: John Travolta and Finola Hughes in Staying Alive (1983)
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (United Artists, 1979)
Disco and basketball come together in this wild comedy featuring professional hoops stars Julius "Dr. J." Erving, Meadowlark Lemon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The plot centers on the hapless Pittsburgh Pythons, the doormat of the NBA who turn to astrologist Mona Mondieu (Stockard Channing) to reverse their fortunes. Jonathan Winters, Jack Kehoe, Debbie Allen and sportscaster Marv Albert ("Yes!") also appear, with real-life NBA players Lou Hudson, Spencer Haywood, Connie Hawkins, Bob Lanier, Norm Nixon, Mychal Thompson, John Shumate, Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell, et al., filling the hardwood. The movie's soundtrack features such disco tunes as "(Do It, Do It) No One Does It Better" (the Spinners), "Magic Mona" (Phyllis Hyman), "Mighty Mighty Pisces" (the Sylvers) and the title song "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" (Bell & James).
Director: Gilbert Moses
Review: "A lot of the people in the theater where I saw Fish loved the dunks, as they loved the disco, as they no doubt would be entertained by the hockey thugs. Disco is obviously a fad, and I doubt that dunk ball can survive for long, either. Fish shows that, like punching people on ice skates, no matter how proficient you are at it, the dunk becomes horribly monotonous after a while." - Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated (11/26/79)
On DVD: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (Warner, 2010)
One sheet movie poster: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)
The Last Days of Disco (Gramercy Pictures, 1998)
Set in the early 1980s, when disco was taking its last breath, this entry stars Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale as two young Manhattanites who hang out at their posh, local disco (think Studio 54). The disco craze is dying ("Disco Sucks," reads one guy's sacrilegious T-shirt) and so is the local disco palace. There's more than disco in this movie, such as the underlying theme of just-out-of-college kids trying to adjust to the adult world, but it's the film's soundtrack that rules the disco floor. And what a playlist it is, featuring such dynamite disco tunes as "Doctor's Orders" (Carol Douglas), "Le Freak" (Chic), "Got to Be Real" (Cheryl Lynn), "Turn the Beat Around" (Vicki Sue Robinson), "More, More, More" (Andrea True Connection), "Got to Have Loving" (Don Ray), "Love Train" (the O'Jays), "Shame" (Evelyn King) and "I Love the Nightlife" (Alicia Bridges).
Director: Whit Stillman
Review: "'The Last Days of Disco' isn't really about the phenomenon of disco or even about the importance of disco in the lives of a handful of characters. People go dancing, and they talk about disco – but not in ways they would have really talked about it in late 1980 and early 1981, when the film takes place...Posterity reduces all eras to cliche. The '20s are the Charleston and bathtub gin; the '70s will be disco and cocaine forever, end of story." - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (5/29/98)
On DVD: The Last Days of Disco (Criterion, 2009)
British quad movie poster: The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.