Tonight I treated myself to a New York 1977 double-bill of films. I started with Saturday Night Fever which I recorded when it was on the Film 4 channel ther other night, and then continued with the DVD of Summer of Sam. Two quite different films about the same place at the same time.
I may have mentioned before that NY in the mid-70′s is one place I would love to go if I had access to a time machine (New York in the 1920s or 1930s is another. I can’t decide whether I would rather see the Empire State Building as a work in progress or in its brand-new glory). I did make it there in 1987, but it was already a very different place by then.The biggest difference in the two films is obviously that one was actually made in 1976/77, while the other is a period piece made twenty years later – which would have made Saturday Night Fever a hell of a lot easier to film. It also means that the nostalgia tastes different. In Summer of Sam it is all manufactured by Spike Lee but in Saturday Night Fever it is manufactured in your head when you see the clothes or hear the music. For some people it will also make them remember where they were, who they were, what they were doing when they originally saw the film in 1977, but not for me. I didn’t actually see it until relatively recently because I was away at boarding school when it first came out.
For years I only saw the pastiches of it, of which the Goodies’ effort is surely the best and most memorable. Of course it is only the dancing, the male grooming and the famous opening shot that are ever parodied so it was easy to get the impression that is all the film was about. When I finally saw the film it was a bit of a shock to find that it had a real story and some degree of grittiness to it – all that sex in cars, a suicide and rape…
There are a few common themes that appear in both films – the impact of catholicism in the Italian-American familes of the Bronx and Brooklyn, the friction between them and the Puerto Ricans and Blacks and, of course, disco. Summer of Sam takes a wider view as it also shows that while New York was the centre of the disco boom it was also a hub for the emerging punk scene and showed events like the heatwave, the power cuts, riots and, obviously, the hysteria about the .44 calibre killer.
Both films have their merits and deserve a viewing, but I can thoroughly recommend taking the time to watch them both back-to-back.