Hollywood has had a long-term romance with literature. Big-screen adaptations of novels (and, yes, comic books) are at an all-time high, but cinema has frequently looked to the school of journalism for its source material. This weekend marks the 38th publication anniversary of New York Magazine’s “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn, which led to the creation of the wildly popular 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta. The movie helped make disco a global sensation and sported one of the best-selling soundtrack albums of all time. But there’s more to Cohn’s story — and these other newspaper and magazine articles that inspired films. See what stories, true and fiction, informed some cinema’s biggest hits — many you probably didn’t realize actually started life between the pages.
In 1976, New York Magazine ran Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” about an Italian-American Brooklyn disco king and the working-class kids who populated the 2001 Odyssey — a New York nightclub landmark that closed its doors in 2005.
Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge — the ultimate Face. He owned fourteen floral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three overcoats, and had appeared on American Bandstand. Sometimes music people came out from Manhattan to watch him, and one man who owned a club on the East Side had even offered him a contract. A hundred dollars a week. Just to dance.
The eighteen-year-old became the inspiration for John Travolta’s Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever — right down to his gig in a paint store and the neighborhood girls who melted watching his moves. “To qualify as an Odyssey Face, an aspirant need only be Italian, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, with a minimum stock of six floral shirts, four pairs of tight trousers, two pairs of Gucci-style loafers, two pairs of platforms, either a pendant or a ring, and one item in gold,” Cohn wrote. “In addition, he must know how to dance, how to drive, how to handle himself in a fight. He must have respect, even reverence, for Facehood, and contempt for everything else. He must also be fluent in obscenity, offhand in sex. Most important of all, he must play tough.”
As engaging and poetic as Cohn’s article is, the entire story was a fabrication. In the 1990s, the British writer came clean:
My story was a fraud, I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road.