Paramount // 1977 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 11th, 2009
Dressed to the nines in a white polyester suit, black silk shirt, and Italian leather shoes, Saturday Night Fever takes its bow on Blu-ray just in time to come to you on a summer breeze, keep you warm in its love, and then softly leave. How deep is its love? If it's you the disc needs to show, read on.
Tony Manero (John Travolta, Grease) is a 19-year-old kid from a working class Italian-American family in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. During the day, he works at a paint store. At night he and his friends Joey (Joseph Cali, The Competition), Double J (Paul Pape, Bolt), and Bobby C. (Barry Miller, Fame) go to a club called 2001 Odyssey where Tony is the king of the dance floor. While his friends are content with dead-end jobs and nighttime partying, Tony is restless. He wants something more, but doesn't know what. His existential confusion is intensified when his older brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar, Invasion U.S.A.) abandons the priesthood out of disillusionment with the church, and Bobby C. struggles to figure out what to do about his girlfriend's unwanted pregnancy. When Tony meets Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney, Creating Karma), a Manhattan secretary who impresses him on the dance floor, he sees an opportunity to win a cash prize at 2001 Odyssey's upcoming dance contest. Can achieving something doing what he most loves point the way to a life outside of the smothering confines of middle-class Brooklyn?
Star Wars wasn't the only movie to storm the box office in 1977. Saturday Night Fever, director John Badham's (WarGames) examination of New York's disco scene raked in a heap of coin, became a massive pop culture phenomenon, and transformed John Travolta from the Sweat Hog of choice among Tiger Beat readers into a bona fide movie star. How does the movie hold up over three decades later? Well, it's definitely a product of its time but, oh, what a lively and entertaining product it is. You might think that a movie featuring scenes in which its protagonist puts a silk shirt on layaway, window shops for platform shoes, and boogies the night away on a lighted disco floor would have transmogrified into an unintentional comedy to rival the intentional comedies of, say, Mel Brooks. But Saturday Night Fever continues to work as a straight drama because it stands outside the disco subculture and examines with a keen, objective eye. Manero's strutting and posing in his bikini briefs while gazing into a mirror is vacuous and funny today because of all of the narcissistic excesses we associate with disco, but the scene was funny back in 1977, too, because 19-year-old kids of any generation tend toward vacuous narcissism.
Basing their story on Nic Cohn's New York magazine article about the disco subculture, "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," Badham and screenwriter Norman Wexler (Serpico) walk a fine line, critiquing disco's shallow excesses while avoiding contempt for their characters. Tony and his buddies are deeply unlikeable in many ways -sexist (actually, misogynist), racist, homophobic, foul mouthed, and ignorant -- but their struggles and conflicts are a variation on the universal experience of adolescence. Saturday Night Fever is a cinematic bildungsroman in the same tradition as Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, George Lucas' American Graffiti, and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. As in those movies, Fever's likeable-despite-himself hero must decide whether he'll settle for the dead-end life of stunted adolescence with which his friends appear content, or take a frightening step into the larger, more dangerous, but also more promising world of adults. Tony's story is told with a satisfying level of New Hollywood naturalism. Its disco excesses remain easy to swallow three decades later because they're grounded in an unflinching, often harsh reality that reveals its characters' warts and all even while lavishing them with a generous affection.
The movie's familiar plot structure and '70s grit is infused with a lively, populist energy by its memorable soundtrack. Like Easy Rider before it, Saturday Night Fever is a movie that was propelled into the pop-culture stratosphere in large part because it found a perfect synergy with its music. The half-dozen songs contributed by The Bee Gees endure as iconic tunes from the era as well as ongoing dance floor favorites. Saturday Night Fever wouldn't be Saturday Night Fever sans Tony's opening credits strut to "Stayin' Alive," or his romantic slow dance with Stephanie to "How Deep Is Your Love." Generally speaking, I'm inclined to agree with the age-old maxim that "Disco Sucks," but the Brothers Gibb knew how to write and perform a tune. Disco or not, their songs for Saturday Night Fever are well-written, beautifully produced, and iconic. The movie would be lesser without them.
The 1080p AVC transfer of Saturday Night Fever on this Blu-ray is extremely impressive. Deep focus detail is obvious throughout, rendering an image far sharper and more cinematic than the earlier DVD releases. Colors are accurate if intentionally muted in exteriors, while scenes inside the 2001 Odyssey pop with glowing reds, oranges, and yellows. Badham shot the movie in true '70s style with loads of diffused light. The transfer handles the filter effects without a hint of macro-blocking or other flaws. The fully restored image shows no signs of dirt, damage, or other age-related defects. This is easily the best home video presentation of Saturday Night Fever ever.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio presentation is also impressive. Dialogue from the original analog audio track is slightly flat with pinched dynamic range, but still impressive given the movie's age. The music sounds amazing, spreading out spaciously across the entire soundstage to envelop the listener.
Supplements include everything from the 30th Anniversary Edition DVD: a fine commentary track by Badham; an in-feature pop-up trivia track called "'70s Discopedia"; and a collection of five retrospective featurettes ("A 30-Year Legacy," "Making Soundtrack History," "Platforms and Polyester," "Deejays and Discos," and "Spotlight on Travolta").
Three deleted scenes included in the 2002 DVD but absent on the 30th Anniversary set are also included. They come with an optional commentary track by Badham.
Finally, there is a trio of HD exclusives. "Back to Bay Ridge" is a modern-day tour of the movie's Brooklyn locations, hosted by actor Joe Cali. In "Dance Like John Travolta with John Cassese" a choreographer walks you through some of Travolta's moves from the film. "Fever Challenge" is a game that's best ignored.
Because of its massive box office success, Saturday Night Fever was re-released in 1978 in a truncated, PG-rated version that allowed curious younger viewers to check it out. This Blu-ray seemed the perfect opportunity for Paramount to deliver a definitive home video presentation containing both the R-rated and PG-rated cuts of the film (previous DVD releases have only offered the R-rated version). It's disappointing that they opted for the easier road of essentially porting over their 30th Anniversary Edition DVD.
Three decades after it was made, Saturday Night Fever remains more entertaining than it has any right to be. A compelling coming-of-age story, it offers a perfect mix of seedy realism and booty-shaking musical populism. This Blu-ray delivers a beautiful presentation of the film along with a respectable (if mostly rehashed) slate of extras. Short of catching it in a theater, there's no better way to watch this '70s classic.
It's so beautiful, man! I like your new haircut! I like that polyester
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track
* Deleted Scenes