Thursday December 16, 2021
Movie Review: Mr. Saturday Night (2021)
The main thing missing from “Mr. Saturday Night,” John Maggio’s documentary on Robert Stigwood, is Robert Stigwood. What do we learn about the man? He was the manager for The Who (but how did he become their manager?), he nearly became the manager for the Beatles (but why did they object?), and he managed the Bee Gees to massive success in the late 1970s. At the 11th hour, we learn that he was gay. He liked young, good-looking men, and hired them, but wasn’t too #MeToo about it. He had an unerring sense of what would be popular. Until he didn’t.
A close second of what’s missing from “Mr. Saturday Night” is a sense of chronology. I’m a broken record on this topic but the culture keeps getting worse at it. 1963 is not 1967 is not 1976. How we got from 1963 to 1967, and then to 1976, is the story, so if you fuck up the chronology you fuck up the story. And “Mr. Saturday Night” keeps fucking up the chronology.
Apologies in advance for this. It’s going to get a little petty.
At one point, film producer Kevin McCormick, who got his start as one of those handsome young men at RSO Records, attempts to give us an overview of the movie scene that Stigwood was landing in in the early 1970s. Against a backdrop of Creedence Clearwater Revival singing “Born on the Bayou” in concert, McCormick says this:
From Woodstock on, Hollywood was totally in transition.
Wait, from Woodstock on? That’s a bit late, isn’t it? I’d go earlier—to at least “The Graduate” in 1967.
Then McCormick talks about how Hollywood saved itself by using music to illustrate a movie, and as example we get the opening credits of “Easy Rider,” which was, again, 1969. And again I’m like: Why not Simon and Garfunkel and “The Graduate” from two years earlier?
I’ll cut to the chase: McCormick finally does mention “The Graduate,” and the doc shows Dusty in his convertible with S&G on the soundtrack, but it’s an afterthought. And from there we immediately go to Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” in 1976—then to “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1975—and it’s all about how directors had way more creative control back then, which was the milieu Stigwood was landing in. And I’m like: Sure. But Stigwood was a producer, not a director. How does this factor in? And why bounce around chronologically? And what does CCR have to do with any of this?
Meanwhile, the larger point is lost. Stigwood spearheaded his inroads into America through “Jesus Christ Superstar”—a complicated-enough story that the movie does little to clarify. It was actually an album first. I didn’t know that. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice tried to sell it as a stage production but nobody was buying, so they turned it into a concept album and it took off. A voiceover from Rice, the lyricist, tells us: “When we were doing the ‘Superstar’ album, before it was a show, Robert got in touch with us, and Robert definitely knew what he was doing.” So what was he doing? Who knows? Why was he interested? Who knows? But he helped turn “Superstar” into a stage production, which set longevity records in London, and then a movie. And it began a pattern for Stigwood that the doc touches on but probably should’ve underlined.
This is the pattern: In the first part of the 1970s, two of the biggest movies Stigwood produced were “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tommy.” What did they have in common? Both were hit albums first. And what did Stigwood do when Paramount began dragging its feet about Stigwood’s “little disco movie” called “Saturday Night Fever”? He turned it into a hit album first. The movie was scheduled for release in December, he released the soundtrack in November, and it became big enough that the movie opened wide enough that it became a huge hit. At least, that’s what the doc says. Some part of me wonders if Stigwood wasn’t planning on releasing the album first anyway.
I mean, if Stigwood invented this concept—release the music first, then the movie—bravo. But I’m doubtful. Because the doc keeps giving him credit for breaking ground on stuff that wasn’t groundbreaking. Turning a TV star (John Travolta) into a movie star, for example. “Nobody had done that,” says a voiceover, “coming from television into feature films.” Sure, nobody. Not Steve McQueen (“Wanted Dead or Alive”), Clint Eastwood (“Rawhide”) or Burt Reynolds (“Dan August”). Nobody. The doc also implies that making a movie (“Saturday Night Fever”) out of a magazine article (“The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” by Nik Cohn) was unprecedented when it’s long been industry practice. “Dog Day Afternoon,” to give one example from the period, was based on a Life magazine article.
Overall, “Mr. Saturday Night” misses the story. It keeps talking up how Stigwood had an instinct for things, how he knew where the culture was going when the suits decidedly did not, but then, after the success of “Saturday Night Fever,” he was undone by the homophobia surrounding the anti-disco movement. But that’s not really what undid him. I think the story is that he had this instinct until he didn’t. And it went away. Like that. In the same year.
For Stigwood, the first half of 1978 was the unprecedented success of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” while the second half were the absolute disasters of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Moment By Moment.” I can’t think of any impresario who had that kind of up-and-down year, one that was so expertly bifurcated.
- In the winter/spring of ’78, “Saturday Night Fever,” the movie, grossed $94 million. It helped launch (or relaunch) a disco craze, made a star out of Travolta, who became the first and only Sweathog to be nominated for an Academy Award, and its imagery is still iconic more than 40 years later.
- But that’s small potatoes. “Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack, was the No. 1 album in the U.S. from Jan. 21 to July 1. That’s right: 24 straight weeks. Half the fucking year. And its songs cluttered the singles charts in a way that nobody had done since the Beatles in 1964.
- And then, starting July 29, the Stigwood-produced “Grease” soundtrack was No. 1, off and on, until October 28. So Stigwood had the No. 1 album in the country for 36 of the 52 weeks of 1978. Plus two of its singles went to No. 1.
- But that’s small potatoes. “Grease” was the No. 1 movie of 1978, grossing $190 million. It’s still 28th all-time when you adjust for inflation.
This isn’t even taking into account Andy Gibb, another Stigwood client, who had the No. 1 song of the year: “Shadow Dancing.” Think of that: Stigwood was the producer of the No. 1 single, soundtrack and movie of 1978. He was everywhere.
Ah, but then the second half.
- In July, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the soundtrack, with music from the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Earth Wind & Fire and Aerosmith, debuted at No. 7, rose to No.5, hovered for a bit, and then disappeared completely after the movie bombed in August. Four singles were released. One reached the top 10.
- “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Ban,” the movie, was not just a bomb but a laughable bomb, and the reviews were scathing. “Indescribably awful” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum. “A business deal set to music” said Janet Maslin. The Bee Gees say it was the beginning of the end for them.
- In December, Stigwood went back to his moneymaker John Travolta with “Moment by Moment,” a love story co-starring Lily Tomlin, which got even more scathing reviews, died even sooner at the box office, and almost ended Travolta’s career just as it was beginning.
Seriously, has anyone ever had such a whiplash year? And if you’re a documentarian, how do you ignore it? Maggio does.
I should add that most of the doc is really about “Saturday Night Fever,” not Stigwood, so it’s odd how it’s being titled, promoted, etc. And I’ll admit, some of the rabbit holes it goes down are fascinating. But even here it’s missing the overall.
I would do the “Fever” story in four acts:
- Inclusive: The disco scene is born in Manhattan, and it’s gay, Black and inclusive. Everyone is welcome.
- Exclusive: Cohn’s article is published in New York magazine in June 1976, focusing on the disco scene at the 2001 Odyssey club in a dilapidated section of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is almost exclusively Italian-American. No one else is welcome. Particularly anyone gay or Black.
- Everywhere: “Saturday Night Fever,” the movie based on Cohn’s article and those exclusive Italian-Americans, becomes a smash hit, and the disco craze blankets the nation.
- Nowhere: Out of that success, the anti-disco movement is born, and it is decidedly anti-gay and anti-Black, and within a few years it helps kill off disco.
That feels powerful to me. Here’s this positive, inclusive thing that we’ll: 1) appropriate, 2) monetize, and then 3) kill.
The arc of that story is in “Mr. Saturday Night,” but the dots aren’t connected. Instead, Maggio focuses on Stigwood without really telling us anything about Stigwood: who he was, what he did, why he rose, why he fell. It’s vague hagiography.