Where do you go when the record is over…
Here's a dark secret for you: I hadn't previously seen Saturday Night Fever until I sat down to review it. Been jamming to the historically catchy grooves featured in the film for decades now, and I understood through the cultural subconscious that John Travolta knows how to dance. This prepared me for the unabashedly funky, stylish context of Saturday Night Fever. I was completely unprepared for the brutal personality conflicts, sharp dialogue, rampant despondency, and subtle condemnations that form the subcontext of the movie. This is not a simple dance movie, and it still speaks to 21st century audiences.
Facts of the Case
In 1970s Brooklyn, a hard-edged group of guys are struggling through youth. Their temple is the 2001 Odyssey, a popular discotheque where they while away their hours, dollars, and brain cells. Chief among them is the charming but belligerent Tony Manero. His life is spent in uninspired drudgery working at a hardware store and being pigeonholed by his parents. The only thing that inspires Tony is being on the dance floor, wowing the appreciative crowd with his grace and sensuality. Yet when he leaves the lights and sounds of the dance floor, his troubles are still waiting.
Tony is unaware of his natural leadership, and his ambitions are of the basest kind: a new shirt, a hot girl, a four dollar raise. His blend of charm and menace is enough to hold his friends in check, and his shortsighted ambitions keep them all in sync. They drink, dance, and carouse at night, then try to make it through the next day intact.
The 2001 dance contest and its $500 prize motivate Tony to find a new dance partner. She has ambition, and struggles to differentiate herself from the blue collar scene around her. Tony's friends find her snobbish; Tony is captivated by her dancing and her spirit while annoyed at her phony attempts to prove her superiority.
As they prepare for the contest, Tony's gang gets more and more off center. His focus shifts towards planning for the future, their focus stays on causing mayhem. Events come to a head and Tony has to make some hard choices about who he is and what he wants out of life.
The Saturday Night Fever experience begins as soon as you pick up the DVD case. Like Tony Manero, the case is slim, spartan, yet flashy. It looks like those plastic-coated, glitter T-shirts from the '70s. The DVD portfolio slides out to reveal Tony strutting and smiling on the dance floor. Opening the portfolio reveals a grainy shot of a bruised and dejected Tony Manero, his life crashing down around him. At risk of taking a metaphor too far, the case matches the movie perfectly. (And unlike some other "special" DVD cases, this one shouldn't annoy you too much.)
Approximately three seconds after popping the DVD in the tray, a smile hit my face. The menu is outstandingly vibrant, funky, and eye-catching. I sat and watched the menu animation recycle a few times just because watching it was so much fun. I punched "play" and sat back.
The film opens with Tony strolling down the street with a paint can. Everything moves in sync to the music ("Stayin' Alive," if you're curious), like in that "interesting" Volkswagen commercial. Decked out in wide collar and funky shoes, his walk down the street is fascinating. Neat camera work, focusing on the shoes, shows Tony's raw machismo. You immediately get a sense of his natural charm (smiling at the ladies), his grace (the way he walks down the street), his materialistic desires (checking out some new threads), and the frustration and intensity brewing within him (scowling as his half-hearted come on is rejected). If it wasn't for that paint can, you could imagine he was on his way to a dance club. But the paint can inevitably drags him back to the hardware store where he works.
Films employ a visual language to get concepts across. In some cases, analyzing the symbolic undercurrent of a film is completely unrewarding. The complexity just isn't there, and you feel pretentious trying to extend the film a line of artistic credit. Saturday Night Fever is one of those increasingly rare films that rewards you for paying attention to the symbolism. John Badham establishes his craftsmanship and finesse early and delivers throughout. Characters' motivations and desires are revealed through glances and facial expressions. This movie could so easily have gone over the top, lambasting us with heavy-handed clichés set amongst a disco backdrop. Instead, Badham coaxes subtle and moving performances out of the actors.
So let's discuss that disco backdrop. The legacy of Saturday Night Fever is polyester, platform shoes, mirrored balls, and other trappings of the super-funky discotheque scene. When Travolta is on the floor, he IS godlike. If I could have seen dancing like that, my ass would have been glued to a barstool in the disco every night. There are other noteworthy dance performances, but Travolta is the showstopper. The lights are pulsing, the music throbbing, Travolta is dancing, life is groovy. I can see why this movie spawned (reflected?) a cultural revolution.
That said, Saturday Night Fever is not about disco per se. Paramount markets it as an urban tragedy. While it doesn't contain out-and-out graphic violence, Saturday Night Fever shocks through open depictions of hostility, rebellion, racism, sexism, violence, rape, drug abuse, and religious pressure. Tony has many concerns, weights that drag him down: his family rides him incessantly, his job is going nowhere, his life is uninspiring, he has no money, car, or apartment. His friends' lives are equally unfulfilling. Their fast driving, in-fighting, drug use, and women abuse make for a depressing character study.
Let's talk about that character study for a minute. The emphasis is on realism, and it works. The dialogue is shockingly good, and they let it play out. A good example is when Fran Drescher walks up to Travolta and says "So, are you as good in bed as you are on that dance floor?" They step on the floor and dance. She asks the question again. Travolta says something like "well, if you f*** as good as you dance, you must be one lousy lay." Now in many of today's films, that would have been it. Either that would have been the witty burn that ended the scene, or the gal would have slapped him and walked off. Not so here. She responds that she hasn't had any complaints. So Travolta sets in again, insinuating that her lovers don't know the difference between a good lay and a bad one. The point is, they keep talking.
Saturday Night Fever deftly avoids clichés. The climax of the movie could so easily have been the results of the dance contest, given that Tony spends most of the time preparing for it. But by the time the contest occurs, it has already taken a back seat to the more urgent question of where his life and the lives of his friends are going. The climax is a little jarring in its suddeness, but in retrospect, it works.
There is a great irony about Saturday Night Fever: the disco image portrayed in the movie caught on like wildfire. The soundtrack went off the charts. Finger pointing and police whistles became popular icons. Yet the people who embraced the flash portrayed in Saturday Night Fever were the ones being dissected and subtly condemned in the film. The disco is not portrayed in a positive light. It is at best a banal money drain, at worst a bellows fanning the flame of drug use, violence, and rape. But John Travolta does such a great job coming alive (and staying that way) on the floor that he became an idol.
The acting is top notch. To achieve a pathetic element, a film must make us care about the characters. These characters are real, they make us care. Travolta takes top honors in this category. It is his first starring role, and he runs with it. His smile lights up the screen, his frown darkens it. He is a major league a-hole, yet we like him anyway. As a viewer, I can identify with how his gang must feel.
Music is the pulse of Saturday Night Fever. It is difficult and unreasonable to separate the soundtrack from the film; they are symbiotic. This is the sound that single-handedly resuscitated disco! Not only does the music sound great, the 5.1 remaster sounds as though the film was recorded with Dolby Digital in mind. This is the best 5.1 remix I've yet heard. I've noticed a similar quality in A.D. remixes (after digital): the surround effects sound soulless, as though half the sound was ripped out of them to remain in the front speakers. The center channel is too boisterous. The overall feel is, well, digital rather than organic. In Saturday Night Fever, the surrounds are used frequently and seamlessly without sounding artificial.
The video transfer looks super-clean. I won't go so far as to say sparkling, because no matter how good a job they did (and they did), you can tell this was shot in the '70s. Newer films like Training Day have a smooth image that jumps off the screen. Saturday Night Fever doesn't have that—but let's be reasonable, it is 25 years old. Watching the deleted scenes shows just how good a job they did on the transfer. Those scenes are the before to the film's after. Overall the transfer gets an A, but there are some video issues…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
…I'm seeing red, and I'm seeing it everywhere. I heard that the color red bleeds in Saturday Night Fever, but that they had cleaned it up for this transfer. If they mean "clean up" in the sense of "throwing on a baseball cap and new shirt when you haven't taken a shower," then I'm there. I appreciate that they used such vibrant colors, but stay in the lines, fellas! I didn't want to touch the screen for fear that my fingers would get stained.
Travolta saved this film in more ways than one. He worked for nine months to learn the dance moves he used in this movie. He choreographed some of the dance numbers. He poured blood, sweat, and tears into the dancing. And what happens? The editors put him in extreme close-up so we can't even SEE him DANCE! If Travolta hadn't been in the cutting room and showed them what to do, we wouldn't have had some of the finer moments in the film. Unfortunately, he wasn't there to edit the whole movie.
The extras are of fine quality, and on the surface they seem plenty: deleted scenes, a 45 minute VH1 "Behind the Music," and a commentary by director John Badham. But I can't help but feel the extras were a little sparse. I'd love to see the trailer, for example. The disc completely ignores the whole "Rated R to PG" transition that is a part of this film's history. Also, how hard would it have been to throw some kind of funkiness into the extras? A guide to disco, perhaps? Or maybe a mini-tutorial on some of Travolta's moves?
This is a movie and DVD treatment that is hard to fault. I'm amazed that I liked this movie so much, 25 years after the fact. I'd be tempted to hail it at the first modern film, if I had the education and knowledge of film to make such a distinction. The acting, story, technique, directing, characters, and coolness all work together. Throw in the music and cultural phenomenon, and you have a winner.
This is a movie I'd be willing to bet you'll see at least twice. The case doesn't take up much room, and it is so cool to look at! Can we keep him, Mom, pleeease? If this is a movie you would consider renting, you might as well buy it. Gene Siskel loved this film so much he bought Travolta's white suit, which puts the price of the DVD in context.
Tony Manero, you have been charged with disturbing the peace, drug use, rape, and generally being a heel. But you have done so with such style and charisma that the court is inclined to ignore your transgressions. You are free to return to your beloved disco, but the court begs you to get out of that dump and make something of your life. If I see you in this court room again, I won't be so lenient.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director John Badham
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