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John Badham
John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape
Norman Wexler

Where do you go when the record is over ...

Rated R.

Academy Awards:
Nominated for Best Actor-John Travolta.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround
English Dolby Surround
English, Spanish

Runtime: 118 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 10/8/2002

• Audio Commentary with Director John Badham
• Highlights from VH-1’s Behind the Music
• Deleted Scenes


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Oddly, negative trends often start from positive beginnings. For example, the whole tendency for movie studios to pack the summer with big-budget nonsense began after the enormous success of Jaws in 1975. As much as some may hate that programming, one can’t fault the still excellent Jaws for it.

Similarly, many folks loathe the inane nature of many contemporary movie soundtracks. These get packed with hoped-for chart-toppers, even when they have little to do with the film in question. The cart drives the horse; hey, even if the flick flops, maybe it can generate a successful album!

If you want to find a culprit in that case, you should probably look no farther than 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. While the movie itself did very well at the box office, the soundtrack album became a true sensation. According to the RIAA, it moved a phenomenal 15 million copies. That makes it the second biggest-selling soundtrack after The Bodyguard, which earned certification as 17-times platinum.

Despite the skillions of crummy soundtrack albums that followed Fever, one can’t blame it or its creators. 25 years after its release, the music holds up pretty well. Of course, disco went badly out of fashion for quite some time, but fashions change, and now the tracks seem fairly solid. I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed them, honestly.

I adored that album back in 1978 when it became such an enormous hit. In fact, my fondness for the music influenced my mother’s decision to allow me to see Fever theatrically. It was my first-ever “R”-rated film, though Paramount soon offered a compromise; because of the album’s enormous popularity, they created a “PG”-rated edition to allow more kids to see it. Happily, I checked out the full “R” cut, and somehow it didn’t scar me.

Actually, at the time, I didn’t see what caused such a ratings fuss. Fever included some brief nudity and a lot of profanity, but otherwise it didn’t seem too offensive. In retrospect, I now know that a lot of the material simply went over my young head. I didn’t understand scads of sexual references and other adult content that was too advanced for my naïve little mind. Surprisingly, Fever seems much more risqué to me at 35 than it did at 10.

While Fever became a true cultural sensation based on it soundtrack album, that shouldn’t lead one to discount it as a movie. I’d not seen the flick for decades. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever watched it again after that 1978 screening. I decided to check out the DVD mostly due to the film’s prominence; the site needed the review, but I can’t say I felt terribly interested in the movie itself. I knew it still enjoyed a positive reputation, but it simply didn’t reside high on my list of priorities.

To my modest surprise, I really liked Saturday Night Fever. After 25 years, I expected it to seem frighteningly dated, but instead I found a fairly timeless flick that still held up quite well, despite its many period elements.

Fever focuses on 19-year-old Tony Manero (John Travolta), a working-class schlub from Brooklyn. He lives with his family and toils at a low-paying hardware store job. He does okay at his job, but his home life seems problematic, as his parents are disapproving and critical; Tony can’t live up to the ideal set by his priest brother Frank, Jr. (Martin Shakar). Tony’s entire world revolves around the weekends, when he can blow his cash and strut his stuff at the local disco. There he becomes the king of the world, as his dancing talents make him the most popular guy on the scene.

Fever doesn’t follow a strict plot, but some elements dominate the story. Tony’s fave disco offers an upcoming dance contest, and he agrees to pair with drippy Annette (Donna Pescow); she has a serious crush on Tony, but he seems disinterested in her. Tony changes his mind, however, when he sees Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) at the disco. Her dancing impresses him, and he clearly feels attracted to her as well. Tony tracks down Stephanie and tries to work his mojo on her, but she largely resists. However, she does agree to dance with him in the contest, so the two start a professional relationship that Tony wants to make personal.

That theme generates most of the action in Fever, but a few other subplots wind through the film. Annette continues to throw herself at Tony and becomes more and more desperate for his attention. A local Latin crew beats up one of Tony’s gang, so his other buddies want revenge. Bobby C. (Barry Miller), the nerdiest member of Tony’s group, impregnates his girlfriend, and he constantly badgers others for advice. His nagging presence means that others essentially tune him out and don’t take him seriously, which feeds his insecurities and makes Bobby even needier. In addition, Frank Jr. decides to leave the church, which leads to much consternation from his parents and grandmother.

Fever tosses out an awful lot of story elements, all of which easily could have turned melodramatic. However, it remains Tony’s story and always comes from his point of view. Really, Fever provides a fairly simple “coming of age” tale that doesn’t seem dissimilar from something such as Rebel Without a Cause. As the movie progresses, Tony starts to become more actively interested in the universe outside his insular little sphere, and he matures and grows beyond the provincial Brooklyn boy seen at the start of the story.

Despite all of the potentially melodramatic elements seen in Fever, the film remains surprisingly natural. As I considered my thoughts about the movie, “natural” remained my word of choice, for I felt the tale came across as believable and organic within its setting. This didn’t seem like outsiders pretending to be Brooklynites. Instead, the elements coalesced in such a way to create a realistic and smooth setting that appeared to accurately represent real life within that realm.

Two aspects of the film strongly contributed to those positive tendencies. For one, director John Badham kept things simple and didn’t go overboard with flashy techniques. No, he didn’t try to do something documentary-style, as Fever clearly offered some stylistic flashes. Heck, one of the flick’s most famous bits – Tony’s opening strut to the tunes of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” – offers a purely cinematic moment.

Nonetheless, Badham presented much of the film in a matter of fact manner that didn’t manipulate the drama and make things more forced and overwrought. A number of life-altering events occurred in the movie; I won’t reveal these since they might be spoilers, but let’s just say that the events didn’t seem like typical “day in the life” material. However, the movie didn’t build inexorably and relentlessly toward a big climax or definitive moment. Actions occurred realistically within their framework, and the film didn’t shove the audiences face in them.

In addition, Travolta’s stellar performance as Tony helped make the movie a success. At the time, some critics accused Travolta of simply playing himself in the role. With 25 years of hindsight, this notion seems more and more absurd, and the power of Travolta’s acting becomes clearer. He made Tony simple but not stupid and kept the character from turning into a stereotype. With his Brooklyn accent and occasionally dopey demeanor, Tony easily could have become a one-dimensional role, but Travolta brought a depth and humor to the part that seemed compelling and natural.

There’s that word again, but it remains the best term to describe Saturday Night Fever. The movie created a natural little world and told a tight tale within that spectrum. As a result, the film remains vivid and surprisingly timeless. Even with all the dated fashions of the mid-Seventies, Fever seems appropriate for modern times; you know there are still many Tony Maneros wandering New York, all with the same issues and interests. Fever may be best known for its music, but the movie offers a treat as well.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio B / Bonus B-

Saturday Night Fever appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, I felt the transfer seemed very good, as most of my concerns related to the original photographic elements.

Fever displayed issues not atypical for films of its era and budgetary restrictions. Sharpness appeared positive as a whole. The picture came across as crisp and detailed throughout the film. I noticed no significant indications of softness or fuzziness during this distinct presentation. Jagged edges and moiré effects also caused no concerns, and I detected no prominent edge enhancement. As for print flaws, light grain appeared from time to time, and some of the darker scenes showed moderate levels of grain. Otherwise, occasional examples of specks, marks and grit popped up, but these remained fairly modest. In general, the image seemed cleaner than I expected.

Fever provided a naturalistic palette, and the DVD usually replicated the hues accurately. The most notable concerns showed up during the nightclub scenes, as the colored lighting occasionally seemed somewhat thick. Otherwise, the tones looked nicely clear and realistic, and they showed no distinct signs of noise or bleeding. Blacks sometimes appeared slightly inky, but they usually came across as reasonably deep and rich. Shadow detail also seemed somewhat dense and heavy on occasion, but those issues related to the film stock more than transfer issues, and most of the movie looked fine in that regard. As I stated at the start of this review, most of the concerns I witnessed related to the age of the film, but as a whole, I felt Fever offered a pretty solid visual experience.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever also seemed good but unexceptional. Given the age of the film, I didn’t expect a very active soundfield, and what I heard seemed good considering those restrictions. The mix favored the forward channels and created a reasonably engaging sense of atmosphere. Music showed fairly positive stereo delineation in the front, and effects popped up in logical locations. They blended together in a somewhat awkward and artificial manner, but this didn’t become a significant distraction. The surrounds usually just reinforced the music and sense of environment, but they did provide some occasional unique elements, such as the split-surround movement of a subway car.

Audio quality appeared acceptable across the board. Speech showed the greatest number of concerns. Fever featured more than its fair share of poorly looped dialogue; this offered some distractions during the relevant scenes. In addition, dialogue occasionally demonstrated some edginess. However, most of the lines seemed reasonably clear and distinct, and intelligibility never turned into a problem.

Effects played a relatively modest part of the film, and they seemed decent. At times they came across as a little thin, but generally they presented clean and accurate material that lacked significant distortion or other issues. The all-important music seemed good but not as strong as I’d hope. The songs packed some nice bass thump and appeared acceptably clear, but they could occasionally come across as a little limp and lifeless. Overall, however, most of the soundtrack seemed positive, and the audio worked fine given its origins.

For the DVD release of Saturday Night Fever, Paramount offer a smattering of supplements. Up first we find an audio commentary from director John Badham, who offers a running, screen-specific track. As with many Paramount commentaries, this one suffers from an excessive number of empty spots; Badham often falls silent. However, the gaps don’t seem truly problematic – they pass fairly quickly – and the director provides enough useful information to make the spaces more forgivable. Badham proves to be a chatty and engaging participant. He seems honest and open about the production, and he tosses out lots of good notes. He includes many compelling anecdotes and gives us a nice overview of the film in this lively and likable chat.

Next we discover Highlights from VH-1’s Behind the Music. Taken from a 2001 broadcast, this 30-minute and 41-second program offers the standard mix of movie snippets, production materials and shots from the set, and interviews. We get recent chats with director John Badham, actors John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Donna Pescow, Paul Pape and Joseph Cali, Billboard Magazine’s Larry Flick, Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley, critic Roger Ebert, Kevin McCormick, the assistant to producer Robert Stigwood, fired Fever director John Avildsen, dance coach Denny Terrio, casting director Shirley Rich, cinematographer Ralf Bode, soundtrack supervisor Bill Oakes, and former Paramount executive Michael Eisner.

If you’ve seen Behind the Music, you’ll know the drill. The program gives us a general look at the film but bathes the proceedings in melodrama; it escalates controversies and doesn’t provide an objective look at the movie’s creation. Nonetheless, Music offers an enjoyable and entertaining piece of work, and it covers the basics of the production acceptably well. We learn some good facts as the program particularly emphasizes Travolta’s part in the flick. Especially compelling are the shots of his early dance rehearsals. Overall, Music doesn’t quite substitute for a real documentary, but it gives us a fun program.

Lastly, the disc includes three deleted scenes. Presented anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Surround 2.0 audio, these run a total of three minutes, 15 seconds of footage. We find "Tony and Stephanie in the Car" (1:29), "Tony's Dad Gets His Job Back" (1:07) and "Tony at Stephanie's Apartment" (0:59). Nothing major appears here, as the snippets wouldn’t add much to the film.

In fact, I think "Job" would've harmed the flick, as it would've lessened the sense that Tony's home life is such a downer. Perhaps the filmmakers considered it because otherwise Tony might look like a cad if he leaves his needy family. Anyway, even though the clips themselves aren't much, they offer a nice addition to this set.

Speaking of nice additions, note that Behind the Music and the deleted scenes all include English, French and Spanish subtitles. Paramount remain the only studio that always provide text for their supplements, and they deserve credit for that effort.

Although Saturday Night Fever probably should come across as frightfully dated, the movie still seems compelling and engaging after 25 years. The flick comes across as surprisingly natural and spry, and it benefits from an excellent Oscar-nominated performance from John Travolta. The DVD offers good picture and sound that seem restricted mainly due to the age of the material, and it also packs a few interesting extras. Saturday Night Fever remains a solid flick, and I definitely recommend it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9682 Stars Number of Votes: 63
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