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Return of the Disco Era?

CAS Prof Bruce Schulman finds parallels between the present-day United States and that of the Saturday Night Fever era


John Travolta may not be the disco-dancing pop culture figure he was in the 1970s, but his character in Saturday Night Fever is “stayin’ alive” — or at least that’s what Bruce Schulman, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of history, believes.

Schulman wrote about the relevance of Saturday Night Fever in a Washington Post article in December, which marked the film’s 30th anniversary.

“The movie isn’t an artifact of a (thankfully) bygone era. It’s as relevant as ever,” he writes in the article "Okay, He Wore Polyester. But He Still Speaks to Us." Although its dance style, clothes, hairdos, and dialogue are often mocked today, the film offered a “dark and serious portrait” of American life in the 1970s, Schulman says.

He compares how Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, attempts to escape from his working-class life by spending his nights disco dancing in contests, with today’s Americans who line up to appear in reality television competitions, such as American Idol and America’s Got Talent. Only these contests “can rip the unfortunate from endless woe (and leave the rest behind),” Schulman writes.

“Lapels aside, the film seems strangely prescient — a road map to the income inequality, the ethnic and racial politics, and the lure of celebrity that we see today,” he writes. “Culturally speaking, the ’70s are back.”

Rebecca McNamara can be reached at ramc@bu.edu.

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