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SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
30th Anniversary Special Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Donna Pescow
Director:  John Badham
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  September 11, 2007

“Would you just watch the hair?!  You know, I work a long time on my hair, and he hits it!”

Film ***1/2

Some movies come out of the can with the self-assuredness of knowing they were made for the time capsule.  From John Travolta’s first strutting steps to the tune of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” in Saturday Night Fever, you know this is one of them.

Of course, it’s easy to recognize that fact some 30 years after its release, when Travolta’s undulating dance moves, white suit and sculpted hair have long been as iconographic in cinema as Boris Karloff’s makeup in Frankenstein or James Dean’s red jacket and white undershirt in Rebel Without a Cause.  Tony Manero is the disco era’s rebel in a film that tapped into our consciousness with its themes of escaping into the things we love and how those moments make life worth living.

Tony (Travolta, of course) is a working class stiff from Brooklyn.  By day, he sells paints in a hardware store.  But on Saturday night, he’s the king of the dance floor at Odyssey 2001.  Dancing is his passion and his escape…the rest of the time, he feels like a nobody, but for those few hours under the lights and mirrored balls, all eyes are on him.

The film portrays the escapist nature of Tony’s dancing so perfectly, that it’s usually the memory that lingers the most.  Truth be told, as much or more time in the picture is spent showing what Tony escapes from:  the problematic home life, his listless buddies, his inability to cope with women as human beings instead of objects.

The two women in his life are Annette (Pescow), who loves him but represents everything he wants to break away from, and Stephanie (Gorney), who symbolizes what he wants to attain.  He shuns the former to chase the latter, but Stephanie is an illusion in more ways than one.  She seems high class to him because she types in an office where stars occasionally stop by (the audience will recognize by her speech and manners that she’s only putting on airs and has no more class than Tony).  But she can dance, and Tony hopes to parlay an upcoming dance contest into romance between them.

I actually had never seen the R rated version before DVD, and am happy to say that in uncut form, the movie is much grittier and more frank in what subjects it wants to explore.  In other words, it’s more than just an extra curse word here and there.  Tony, likeable through his faults, is actually a much darker and more well rounded character when the picture doesn’t flinch.

Fun dance sequences and great music are juxtaposed with grimmer imagery, including a finale that is, for me, quite a jaw-dropper, as an emotionally scarred Tony seems bitterly helpless (or too angry) to do the right thing as a drugged-out Annette spirals downward into a nightmare.  An exclamation point in the form of a death pulls the final trigger in Tony’s life.  He finally decides to follow his heart, even though his mind remains jumbled and his life ultimately unresolved.  Do we look toward Tony’s future with any hope (let’s pretend for a moment that the sequel doesn’t exist)?  The ambiguity may not be the right final note, which is why, I think, we tend to remember the dancing and the music more than anything.

I called this a time capsule picture, and the more you watch it, the more you recognize how amusingly self-aware it is, from the lines about polyester and hair to the images of Farrah Fawcett, Bruce Lee and Al Pacino…and of course, most of all, disco, as this was the first movie to tap into what was essentially an underground movement at the time, and helped turn it into a national sensation, complete with music, fashion, and an inevitable backlash.

John Travolta has come a long way in his career, and offered more than his share of memorable performances, but just when I get settled into thinking of him as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction or Jack Stanton in Primary Colors, I watch Saturday Night Fever again, and realize that Tony Manero is too firmly etched in my mind to ever be erased.  Considering his Oscar nomination and the power of the performance, that’s hardly a dismissal.

Video ****

Most impressive…in fact, quite stunning!  Paramount’s anamorphic offering here is one of the best looking transfer I’ve seen for a film from the 70s.  This is a glowing, colorful feast for the eyes, especially inside the nightclub, where lights, shadows, tones and images come to vibrant life.  Despite all the goings-on, there are no distortions, no softness, no grain, and no evidence of compression to mar the effect.  The palate is rich and deep, the detail level strong throughout, and the print is in supreme condition.  I never would have guessed it could look this good even on disc…kudos to Paramount!

Audio ***1/2

Hey, I love the Bee Gees…can’t help it.  Hearing their wonderful and inescapable song score in 5.1 is heaven on earth.  In fact, had this disc included a 5.1 music-only track, it might have made for the ultimate party soundtrack!  The disco music purrs and booms in full surround orchestration, with the subwoofer keeping the beats strong and pure.  The rear stage makes the streets of Brooklyn come to life with ambience and background cues, while the front stage handles the dialogue with no problems (though it can’t help but sound a bit thin in comparison to the remastered music).  A listening pleasure.

Features ***1/2

The disc starts off with a  pretty good commentary track from John Badham…if you’re into trivia, like I am, you’re bound to learn a number of juicy tidbits along the way that you never knew before.  There are a few pauses here and there, but over all, the information is good, making this a worthwhile listen.  For even more trivia fun, there's a 70s Discopedia subtitle feature that offers info both interesting and off-the-wall.  Though be warned...if you were around when the film first came out, like I was, it might make you feel a bit old.

"Catching The Fever" is a 52 minute documentary that focuses on multiple aspects of the production and features many cast and crew interviews, including the surviving Bee Gees, but oddly enough, no Travolta, even though he's the focus of one of the segments.  There is a "Back to Bay Ridge" featurette, a dance lesson, and "Fever Challenge", which is supposed to show you some extra moves.

The packaging is very cool, with the DVD looking like a giant mirror ball behind John Travolta!

Summary:

You know you’ve got the fever, so treat yourself to this 30th anniversary DVD offering.  Travolta still rules the dance floor, the Bee Gees still dominate the disco airwaves, and polyester bell bottoms are still ugly as hell.  But this disc is a gorgeous revelation…you’ll feel like you’re experiencing the movie for the first time all over again.

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