Mr. Saturday Night Zeroes in on the So-Called Wizard of Oz of the Disco Era

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Mr. Saturday Night Zeroes in on the So-Called Wizard of Oz of the Disco Era

“Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge—the ultimate Face,” wrote Nik Cohn in his 1976 New York cover story “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” The piece was a deep dive on the mostly Italian-American young adults who frequented a discotheque in Brooklyn called 2001 Odyssey. Vincent, for whom the club is a sort of safe haven, was the story’s complicated main character: “When Saturday night came round and he walked into 2001 Odyssey, all the other Faces automatically fell back before him, cleared a space for him to float in, right at the very center of the dance floor.” Per Cohn’s description, Vincent owned 14 floral shirts and stood at 5’9” in platforms.

Also per Cohn, Vincent didn’t actually exist; the former would admit in the ‘90s that his “ultimate Face,” like the rest of the story, had been completely made-up. But none of this mattered just yet in 1976. What mattered was that said issue of the magazine happened to come across the desk of Robert Stigwood, the burgeoning music and film mogul who saw in Cohn’s story the makings of a great movie. Stigwood had recently signed an up-and-comer named John Travolta—then already a teen idol due to his work on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter—to a three-picture Paramount contract. It wasn’t yet clear what those pictures would be, but Stigwood was known to have a knack for seeing things that others didn’t—a “sense of smell,” as Cohn once described it.

Stigwood is the official but ostensible focus of the latest in HBO’s Music Box docuseries, Mr. Saturday Night, directed by John Maggio. He turns out to be something of a Trojan Horse, since the documentary is largely about the making of Saturday Night Fever, for which Cohn’s secretly fictional Vincent became Travolta’s character, Tony Manero. Maggio tells us at the beginning that he first embarked on a project about ‘70s disco culture, but soon shifted gears to zoom in instead on the Wizard of Oz-like figure at its center. To learn about Stigwood and the business moves he made over the course of the ‘70s, it seems it is to better understand a whole chapter of both music and film history.

To rewind a bit, as the film does, the self-effacing Stigwood made his way to London from his birthplace of South Australia in the ‘50s, getting into show business not too long thereafter. A decade later, he was managing Cream and fellow Aussies the Bee Gees, and had professionally joined forces with the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein. When Epstein died suddenly in 1967, Stigwood was left as the de facto manager of The Beatles, who’d never particularly liked him (or the Bee Gees, so says the film). The solution was obvious to all parties: Stigwood would take his two acts and split off into RSO, and The Beatles would obviously be fine.

When Cream and the Bee Gees both subsequently entered flop eras, Stigwood gained traction in both the theater and film worlds, in part due to his professional relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Rather than abandoning the music industry proper, however, he had designs on bridging sound and picture in innovative ways. Directors of the New Hollywood had already started to approach film soundtracks differently than in the studio era, relying more on pop songs to help tell (and sell) stories. Having produced the show’s original Broadway run, Jesus Christ Superstar became Stigwood’s first film production. Then came the also successful Tommy, for which he united an ensemble of pop stars, with The Who—clients from back in London—at the center of Ken Russell’s rock opera.

In recounting all of this, Maggio opts for subjects’ disembodied voices over talking heads in the traditional sense; anecdotes play over photographs of whomever is speaking, with everyone in Stigwood’s orbit seamlessly woven together in time and space. (The only notable absences are surviving Bee Gee Barry Gibb, and perhaps Eric Clapton, who is busy.) That we’re never entirely sure when or where a particular voice is reporting from—or even whether a given speaker is still with us today—only makes the film feel more cohesive, since everything is always visually grounded in the two or so decades with which the film concerns itself. Mr. Saturday Night is more interested in getting into the nuances of this era than forcing a connection to the current one.

When it came to Saturday Night Fever, Stigwood saw an opportunity to exploit his proximity to the Bee Gees, who’d managed to pull themselves out of their commercial rut by embracing R&B. A number of songs intended for their next album were instead allocated towards the soundtrack, which Stigwood—naysayers be damned—insisted on having come out before the film. The record quickly became, and remains, one of the best-selling albums of all time. (Michael Eisner, then president of Paramount, tells a funny story in which he’s figuratively chased around a ski resort by “Stayin’ Alive,” rubbing in how much better Stigwood was at predicting the future than anyone else.) The soundtrack’s success also helped cancel out some of the things actively working against the film: That it was dark and full of “language,” that disco culture seemed to be quieting down with every passing month of production, that there were a number of serious behind-the-scenes hurdles. In the end, if the droves of young people suddenly showing up to clubs dressed as Tony were any indication, Saturday Night Fever seemed to buy disco at least a bit more time (not to mention Travolta his first Oscar nomination).

Of course, there was always going to be the inevitable backlash, even before the revelation that the film’s source material was a work of fiction. (“Anything that big, it has to end,” as one speaker puts it.) While the film and its follow-up Travolta/Stigwood joint, Grease, fiscally carried Paramount through the late ‘70s, the final film in their deal, Moment By Moment, was critically panned—as was Stigwood’s attempt the same year to turn the Bee Gees into movie stars once and for all—he’d already tried this, kind of, back in 1970—with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We’re also treated to footage of Twisted Sister helping to usher in the “Disco Sucks” movement.

The cultural 180 was famously hard on Travolta as well as the Bee Gees (a story covered more in-depth in last year’s HBO doc The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart). Stigwood, for his part, took his hundreds of millions of dollars and pivoted to yachting in Bermuda, returning only for one last production credit with another stage-to-screen project, Evita. But his innovations survived him and then some, especially as MTV added yet another marketing tool to the mix: Films like Flashdance, Top Gun, The Bodyguard and even A Star Is Born are put forward as adherents of the Stigwood school of soundtracks-as-marketing.

Maggio’s film is, wisely, not terribly invested in the mogul’s biography on either side of these 20-odd years. He’s also careful not to force a story where there isn’t one: While Stigwood was gay, for instance, the documentary resists the temptation to present that as the emotional driver behind any of his work. Its most recent bit of footage appears to come from 1996, pretty significantly removed from his death in 2016. And while the ending of Mr. Saturday Night might feel abrupt to some viewers, the approach is ultimately more respectful of its subject than the alternative. Stigwood is kept as an entry point for examining the cultural phenomena he had a hand in, and never tabloidized in a way that he likely would not have appreciated. If knowing Stigwood’s name unlocks a particular chapter of film and music history, then the documentary is a fun and often funny reminder that they’ve frequently been one and the same.

Director: John Maggio
Release Date: December 9, 2021 (HBO Max)

Sydney Urbanek is a Toronto-based writer on movies, music videos, and things in between. She wrote her MA thesis on Jonas Åkerlund’s music video work. She also writes a newsletter called Mononym Mythology about mostly pop divas and their (visual) antics. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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