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‘Mr. Saturday Night’: How an Aussie impresario caught disco fever and made a movie classic

HBO doc tracks the trailblazing career of Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees manager who got ‘Saturday Night Fever’ on the screen.

John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney strut their stuff in “Saturday Night Fever,” the crowning achievement of producer Robert Stigwood.
Paramount Home Entertainment

My favorite nugget in the HBO documentary “Mr. Saturday Night” concerns director John G. Avildsen, who was fresh off the triumphant “Rocky” and had signed on to direct John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” — and announced his intentions to dump the Bee Gees songs from the movie and go in another direction.

Yikes. Avildsen was relieved of his duties, John Badham was brought aboard, and the rest is movie — and movie soundtrack — history.

The Australian entrepreneur/manager/producer/showman Robert Stigwood is the subject of “Mr. Saturday Night,” a bad title for the latest chapter in HBO’s “Music Box” documentary series. (You can see why it’s a bad title if you do a Google search of “Mr. Saturday Night” and the Billy Crystal movie and subsequent Broadway musical of the same name pops up. Why not come up with something original?)

Told in solid, straightforward, traditional documentary style and relying heavily on voice-over interviews from unspecified time periods, old TV clips, behind-the-scenes footage and period-piece still photos, “Mr. Saturday Night” tracks the Australian-born Stigwood’s trailblazing career in its entirety — but a great deal of focus is on the fascinating tale of how “Saturday Night Fever” came to be. First, though, we learn about Stigwood’s days in the 1960s promoting and managing the likes of Cream and Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees, producing the first theatrical production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and then his expansion into the film adaptations of “Superstar,” “Tommy,” “Grease” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (yikes).

After reading Nik Cohn’s 1976 New York magazine article titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” Stigwood pitched Paramount Pictures CEO Barry Diller and Paramount’s movie studio chief Michael Eisner on a movie adaptation of Cohn’s strikingly original chronicle about the working-class subculture in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where once a week the neighborhood twentysomethings would spend their hard-earned money at the disco 2001 Odyssey, where they would hit the dance floor and blow off steam. (Cohn later admitted the piece was pure fiction.)

Robert Stigwood in 1978.
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Diller and Eisner reluctantly agreed to the concept, with Stigwood bringing “Welcome Back, Kotter” star John Travolta aboard to star as Tony Manero — and perhaps even more vital to the film’s enormous success was Stigwood listening to some demo songs from his old friends the Bee Gees and realizing they were perfect for “Saturday Night Fever.” This was a time when movie soundtracks were an afterthought, so when Stigwood asked Paramount to forego any royalties to the double album, the execs shrugged and said OK — and Stigwood reportedly took in $4 for every one of the 40 million copies sold.

The man was a showman but also a great businessman. And he was such a high-profile figure in the 1970s that when Merv Griffin had the Bee Gees on his TV show to take a victory lap for the monstrous success of the “Fever” soundtrack, Stigwood was introduced right along with them and sat in on the interview.

Stigwood remained a part of show business through the decades to come until his death in London in 2016 at the age of 81. Disco was a sensation and then a joke and then the target of widespread backlash — but if you watch the gritty and rough “Saturday Night Fever” today, Travolta’s charismatic performances shines through, and the soundtrack is spectacular. Robert Stigwood had the touch.