When “Saturday Night Fever” came out in 1977, the small film about an Italian kid from Brooklyn who moonlighted as a disco dancer became a force of nature. It rocketed star John Travolta into the stratosphere, and the soundtrack album, heavy on the Bee Gees, sold 25 million copies, many before the film was even out in theaters.
Director John Maggio’s new documentary “Mr. Saturday Night” tells the little-known tale of Robert Stigwood, an Australian impresario who managed the Bee Gees and became the unlikely producer of “Fever.” He spoke with me about his new film, which recently played at DOC NYC, and about the legacy of Stigwood and what he created.
Also from Eric Althoff: DOC NYC once again provides a wealth of true-to-life tales: TAKEAWAYS
It’s been over 40 years since “Saturday Night Fever,” and so many of the people who were there, including Robert Stigwood, are gone now. Why was now the right time for this documentary?
I was interested in exploring what new things I could find out about the disco era. I had been interested in the Bee Gees, and when I started to poke around I discovered Robert Stigwood. I knew nothing about him but quickly discovered he was behind so many hits at that moment from radio, Broadway and in film. He was having a moment in the seventies, and he seemed like the right character to tell the larger story of that moment.
Once I focused on him and spoke with people around him, it opened the door to this great story about the making of “Saturday Night Fever,” which, for better or worse, extended the life of disco for a couple years. But with that movie Stigwood was shaping the culture, and that fascinated me.
Robert Stigwood comes across in “Mr. Saturday Night” as this unique impresario and schmoozer, yet he was able to get things done. To what do you ascribe this, do you feel that his being Australian gave him outsider moxy versus if had been an American?
Robert was an Australian who went to London to find his fortune. Before he came to America he was a big success as a music manager and had early success with the Bee Gees, The Who and Cream, among others. I think it was because he was an Aussie in London, that was a big motivation for him.
He seemed to enjoy the status of his wealth. He was always photographed in front of his Rolls Royce and mansion. But in the UK it’s about class and not money. He couldn’t buy his way into society but in America he could, and I think he liked that. He wanted to make a big splash in America and, as he says [in the film], “I am a gambler.” It really paid off in Hollywood.
Did Stigwood’s family allow you access to his archives to get the sound bites and previous interviews you weave into the film?
Yes, we had the blessing from the estate and RSO, his company. We were able to source material from traditional archives and from former colleagues and friends. The other voices in the film were either archival or from Zoom interviews I conducted over the course of the production.
I wanted only voices of people who knew him or were around him from the time. Not experts or historians. I wanted the film to be immersive: That’s why I chose not to do traditional filmed interviews.
Did you approach John Travolta for the making of this film?
We approached Travolta, but it was right at the time of his wife’s [actress Kelly Preston] death [in 2020 from breast cancer], so they declined and we had to use archival bits for him.
Again, I wanted the film to live in its moment and not be distracted by traditional on-camera interviews. I didn’t want to leave the time period. I sometimes find the traditional approach takes me out of the moment in a film like this, and we had such a rich archive and great period music.
What is it about “Saturday Night Fever” that remains current so many decades after its release?
I don’t think “Saturday Night Fever” the movie holds up well [when] seen through our lens today. It’s quite of its time with its use of language, overt sexism, homophobia, etc. It’s difficult to watch. but…the music and the dancing are what live on. Travolta’s dance scenes are just amazing, and the music from Bee Gees to the Tramps is just so good. When those songs come on the radio today I still want to listen.
As for the themes in the movie that live on, I think it’s that natural adolescent yearning to define yourself. And that is an often painful process.
What were some of the challenges that you encountered making this film?
Covid [and] working with a team of people who could not be in the same room at the same time. Filmmaking is super collaborative, and to not be able to be with your editor (the amazing Seth Bomse) and your producer (the spectacular Caroline Cannon) makes it really hard. Fortunately I had a great team and we overcame those challenges. HBO and The Ringer were super supportive, which helped a lot.
What’s the main takeaway of “Mr. Saturday Night”?
In the mid-seventies [Stigwood] was at his best. He was having his moment, and we come to understand his vision in how he assembled this team to make this movie, and at the same time transform the way the movie and music industry worked.
I want people to walk away having just been told a fascinating story about a man [who] changed the culture. I make a lot of heavy films about politics and how the world works. That’s not this film.
In many ways, like Stigwood, I set out to entertain you. If you’re interested in how culture is shaped, this is your movie. Step by step!
“Mr. Saturday Night” is available on HBO Max as part of its “Music Box” series produced by Bill Simmons