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SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Donna Pescow
Director:  John Badham
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  May 5, 2009

“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 home video, 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 ****

Oh, I'm in disco heaven...seriously, I thought Paramount delivered the goods with this title on DVD, but I'm so very impressed with this Blu-ray.  It might be one of the best looking 70s transfers I've seen.  The lights and images of the night clubs are intoxicating, and make you feel like you're really there.  The darker scenes come through with clarity, and just a touch of grain, which is unavoidable, but in high definition, actually enhances the 70s experience for me.  The colors are bright and plentiful, and the constant use of them really brought out the best in my system.

Audio ****

I've never found a Bee Gees CD that I thought really did the sound of their music full justice, but hearing their indelible tunes pulsing through TrueHD sound is a revelation.  The orchestrations and arrangements sound more full than I've ever heard before, and the subwoofer keeps the bass thumping and your feet moving.  It's really the music that gives it dynamic range, but the dialogue comes through cleanly and less thinly than in previous releases, and there are plenty of crowd scenes and outdoor activities that bring the rear stage into play nicely.

Features ****

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, plus three deleted scenes.

I wish the extras had been remastered for HD, and that you could access them while watching the movie, but still...a very nice package.

Summary:

This was the late film critic Gene Siskel's favorite movie, and I wish he could have seen it on this terrific Blu-ray 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 high definition 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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