‘Thank God It’s Friday’ (1978): Sanitized Hollywood disco shenanigans

Disney-fied PG-rated hijinks at a distressingly chaste, mildly drug-fueled, not-nearly-as-gay-as-we-expected late 1970s Hollywood disco!

Mill Creek Entertainment has released a spiffy, bare-bones Blu-ray 40th Anniversary Edition of Thank God It’s Friday, the 1978 Motown-Casablanca Record and Filmworks disco dancing comedy (released by Columbia Pictures) starring Jeff Goldblum, Debra Winger, John Friedrich, Terri Nunn, Valerie Landsburg, Chick Vennera, Ray Vitte, Andrea Howard, Mark Lonow, Paul Jabara, Marya Small, DeWayne Jessie, and guest stars The Commodores and the “Queen of Disco” herself, Donna Summer. Way more Love Boat than Saturday Night Fever, Thank God It’s Friday is remembered today (if at all) for debuting Summer’s big Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe-winning hit, Last Dance…but it’s harmless-enough summer junk, I suppose, for those in a zoned-out late 70s funk.

By Paul Mavis

Everyone, but everyone, is making their way to the Zoo Disco, the hottest discotheque in Hell-A. The Zoo’s star d.j., Bobby Speed (Ray Vitte), is ready to leap into the big time: he’ll be live over the radio when the Zoo’s dance contest, featuring heavyweight band The Commodores, goes down later that night. He better start praying that inept roadie “Wrong Way” Floyd (DeWayne Jessie) gets The Commodores’ band equipment to the disco on time…which isn’t likely. Speed’s boss, slimy poon tappa Tony (Jeff Goldblum), is ready for his and Bobby’s usual Friday night game: Bobby picks the girl and bets a hundred bucks Tony can’t seduce her. Tonight, that victim will be straightlaced-but-stacked housewife Susan (Andrea Howard), who drags her boring CPA husband, Dave (Mark Lonow) into Zoo against his will. Jealous of Tony’s attentions towards his wife, Dave soon gets into the swing of things—i.e.: taking drugs and dancing—when he hooks up with dental assistant/disco weirdo Jackie (Marya Smalls).

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Others heading to the Zoo this Friday night include good girl Jennifer (Debra Winger), looking for a nice guy, and bad girl Maddy (Robin Menken), looking to get laid. Nice guy Ken (John Friedrich) can’t dance, but he looks like Steve Stunning next to his dorky, obnoxious friend Carl (Paul Jabara). High school teens Frannie (Valerie Landsburg) and Jeannie (Terri Nunn) can’t get into the adults-only disco…but they have to, in order for Frannie to win the big disco-dancing contest so they can buy KISS concert tickets (and to pay back the money Jeannie stole from her brother). Guess who helps them? Marve “the Leatherman” Gomez (Chick Vennera), a regular at the club who lives and breathes disco dancing. Angry schlub Gus (Chuck Sacci) is even angrier when he sees his computer date Shirley (Hilary Beane) is a lot taller than he, while Cinderella-in-waiting Nicole (Donna Summer), only needs one break—singing at the Zoo–to prove she’s the next disco diva.

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In 1978, I had the distinctly unpleasant experience of being taken to a new “Hollywood musical” by a clueless relative, one who no doubt thought the R-rated Saturday Night Fever was going to be something akin to Thoroughly Modern Millie set to disco. So, at 12 years old, I squirmed in my seat, listening to music I didn’t particularly care for, watching an actor I had liked on TV now transformed into what looked to be a gay hustler, before being horribly embarrassed during the movie’s more “adult” scenes…like a gang rape (that’s when my mortified relative finally wised up, grabbed my hand, and dragged me outta there). So, no—no, I didn’t go see the utterly tame, PG-rated sitcom-y Thank God It’s Friday when it came out only a few months later, in May, 1978. Disco was dead to me by then, thank god.

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However…I did watch Thank God It’s Friday when it aired later on Showtime, and I do have to admit that I found it somewhat entertaining—as a 13-year-old—in that narrow, specific way disposable television was mindlessly diverting to me back then: it had to be busy enough to occasionally grab my attention inbetween building models or reading a comic book, and just agreeable enough not to make me get up and change the channel (or in Showtime’s case, snap the switch on that little octagonal converter box—ah, the joys of early premium cable…). Critics and moviegoers at the time unfavorably compared TGIF (as it will be known from now on in this review because I’m tired of typing the whole thing) to Saturday Night Fever, but that’s like comparing Rocky, the little mobster who wants to take Bugs Bunny for a ride, and Tony Soprano. A disco may be the setting for both, but the movies’ aims are entirely different.

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Casablanca Records, home in the mid-70s of Top 40 killers KISS, Parliament and Donna Summer, and noted at the time for its excessive spending, lavish promotions, and the sybaritic lifestyles of its executives (a neat trick in already decadent Hollyweird), became a true Tinsel Town player when Bogart merged his company with producer Peter Gruber’s indie Filmworks. Right out of the gate they scored a big hit in theaters: 1977’s summer blockbuster, The Deep. TGIF, alas, would not swim in the same b.o. waters.

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TGIF germinated from two separate movie projects. In 1976, Motown Records (which had produced the successful-but-too-expensive musical, Lady Sings the Blues) commissioned a disco script, “Discotheque,” from writer Barry Armyan Bernstein and producer Rob Cohen. Simultaneously, Casablanca Record and Filmworks shopped their own disco musical to Columbia Pictures. No doubt both companies were hoping to jump the gun on the peaking disco movement, in part because of the considerable publicity generated by white-hot Hollywood property John Travolta’s recently-announced Saturday Night Fever project. Cohen convinced Bogart and Gruber to combine forces—the first time two record companies joined to make a movie—and “After Dark,” soon to be renamed TGIF, was scheduled for a spring, 1977 shoot, with a fall, 1977 release (calculated to beat Saturday Night Fever to the big screen by two months).

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Unfortunately, production delays, including the replacement of original director Joe Layton with unknown Robert Klane (a big loss for the movie, considering Layton’s fame as a Broadway director and choreographer), as well as lengthy rewriting of the script, pushed TGIF’s shooting schedule back to mid-summer, 1977, with no chance now to slip into cinemas before Saturday Night Fever. In an unusual marketing move, Bogart decided to release the TGIF soundtrack six weeks before the movie premiered in May, 1978, in the hopes of getting heavy air play as cross-promotion for selling movie tickets that summer. While the 3-disc, 5-sided soundtrack generated significant publicity (and decent-enough sales, even at the exorbitant price of $12.98—the equivalent of over $50 today), the album purchases didn’t translate into stampeding moviegoers. TGIF grossed around $6 million (with less than half of that returned as rentals to Columbia and Casablanca), against a $2.5 million below-the-line production budget. As well…both Casablanca and Columbia spent a fortune on promoting the movie, so when all was said and done, TGIF wound up deep in the red.

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“Safe” is certainly the key word that best sums up TGIF’s tone and approach, giving us a sanitized, relatively innocuous picture of the wildly hedonistic, heavily gay-influenced urban disco scene of the late 1970s. When you see that notorious Casablanca Record and Filmworks was the lead producing arm of TGIF, with Casablanca’s equally infamous co-founder, Neil Bogart, personally overseeing the production, you have to wonder why someone in an early production meeting didn’t go for broke and suggest, “Screw going for pasteurized, middle-of-the-road calculation—let’s tap into our own coke-fueled frenzy and tear the roof off this sucker!” (with apologies to Casablanca’s own Parliament). Considering that a daily occurrence as pedestrian as Casablanca’s morning mail arrival was an excuse for a bottle of Dom and a line of blow off some pretty staffer (something that we would never condone here at the Movies & Drinks corporate offices…because we’re too old and poor to pull it off anymore), imagine how TGIF would have panned out with that kind of “artistic vision.”

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Unfortunately, the producers stubbornly plunked TGIF down into PG-rated kiddie land. No nudity, only mild vulgarity, and benign drug taking that’s just for laughs—not for getting seriously high and flipping out. Despite the movie advertising promising wild shenanigans, nothing really happens at this homogenized disco. Nobody gives way to abandon and strips down on the dance floor; there’s no anonymous sex in the balconies or down in the dungeons; the two high school girls don’t have to blow anyone to gain entrance; the housewife doesn’t lose her shit and boff the club owner; Dave doesn’t nail the dental assistant; that male transvestite doesn’t get any action; and desperate Donna Summer, who says she’s willing to do anything for her big break…isn’t asked to do anything, in the end. TGIF’s The Zoo isn’t debauched, orgiastic Studio 54…it’s the Terra Haute Rotarian potluck, held in the Methodist church basement.

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Worse, TGIF’s message—“Don’t be afraid of disco, kids!”—calculated to rake in middle-class dough from the uninitiated, is exactly why the genre went mainstream and then died away (or at least dropped off for awhile, before it morphed into house and EDM). Saturday Night Fever made disco seem like an exotic, sealed-off world that was as potentially dangerous and threatening as it was deliciously naughty “forbidden fruit.” TGIF feels like a late-season Love Boat episode, with unfamiliar non-stars put through their grindingly unfunny paces on the Lido Deck. What young couple seeing this movie said, “Hey, let’s go to our local disco afterwards…it’ll be just like watching The Monte Carlo Show with Patrick Wayne!” What teen, too young to get into their local disco hotspot, wanted to discover that inside, it could be just as lame as TGIF’s Chuck E. Cheese-on-poppers Zoo? The minute your Mom and Dad jumped up and started doing “the Hustle” when S.W.A.T.’s credits rolled, disco died. And TGIF, with that “PG” rating and that silly sitcomy trailer, was exactly the kind of movie your parents would “ok” you seeing…and who the hell wants that (even Saturday Night Fever wasn’t immune to this disco-for-dollars pasteurization; in 1979, a PG-rated version was re-released into theaters for the Song of Norway crowd. It cleaned up again).

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So what’s left is a little bit of American Graffiti and Car Wash story construction (let’s see how many subplots we can rapidly cut back and forth to. Or from. Or whatever), and a lot of warmed-over Bob Hope TV specials humor. Unbelievably, there’s very little sustained dancing in our disco dancing movie (it’s pretty sad that the critics could only point to Marv’s poor Gene Kelly pastiche as TGIF’s best dance sequence. Leaping back and forth on top of cars, with lots of jazz hands and spins, ain’t dancing). As for the music, it’s chopped to hell and drowned out on the soundtrack whenever they cut to another labored comedy bit (when The Commodores finally show up, in all their space-age funkified glory, the second they go into their song, the camera cuts away to jackass Dave as the group’s volume is faded down). The height of humor in TGIF, apparently, is the word “tits” thrown around incessantly, while cliches of the late 70s disco scene (Maddy catalogs the various tell-tale signs of a disco creep: polyester, Zodiac signs, etc.) are trotted out for our yok yok yok enjoyment.

RELATED | Read more 1970s film reviews

As for the performers, a few try hard, and their attempts at energy are at least welcome. Soon-to-be A-lister Debra Winger is so good at playing watchful and intelligent and sweet, she seems like she’s in another movie altogether. Car Wash’s Ray Vitte looks like he’s up for anything…although his central character is given surprisingly little to do, and soon peters out. Valerie Landsburg and Terri Nunn are consistently ingratiating, despite their insipid lines. DeWayne Jessie gets the biggest laughs as the directionally challenged roadie (that first cut to him saying, “Where am I?” is the movie’s funniest moment—we should have seen a lot more of him). And Andrea Howard has a nicely wicked comedic gleam in her eye, suggesting untapped suburban passions…too bad nobody behind the camera had any intention of displaying her obviously lush body.

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The rest? Well…they try too hard. Last Dance songwriter Paul Jabara got more laughs with his 10 second bit in The Lords of Flatbush than he does in all of TGIF (talk about hammy). Mark Lonow is no better as the CPA-turned-wildman Dave (calling Bobby Bittman!). I never bought Marya Small’s kooky ditz act, while I’m still trying to figure out the small cult that follows non-entity John Friedrich (a rat-faced Alfred E. Newman disaster as the movie’s nominal romantic lead). Chick Vennera’s Taco Bell Chihuahua accent isn’t offensive because it’s racist; it’s offensive because it takes ethnic humor—a legitimate format—and beats it to death with ineptitude. And already at this beginning stage of his career, Jeff Goldblum, looking like the love child of Chris Sarandon and Count Chocula, was hammering his “intense staring and fluttering line delivery” into the ground.

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As for Miss Summer, the Queen of Disco…why, oh why didn’t someone ditch all the subplots and make TGIF about her? Despite the lousy way she’s introduced to movie audiences (an unglamorous shot of her smacking her gum—jesus, didn’t anyone ever study old Hollywood?), she’s clearly talented in front of the camera, even when she’s not singing. But alas, she’s barely around (that may have been another reason why the movie flopped). Still, when she belts out one of her signature tunes, Last Dance, a multitude of TGIF’s sins are at last forgiven.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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