SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER - Blu-ray review

Today, it's like a kind of '70s jukebox that hasn't quite aged that well.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, John, Hock, and Dean all review the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
To some degree or another, every film documents an era, no matter what the film's subject matter or time setting. Some films simply document more obviously than others, like 1977's "Saturday Night Fever." I mean, is it possible to listen to disco music anymore without snickering? Or think about discos without a shudder? Or watch "Saturday Night Fever" without recalling "Airplane!"?

John Travolta, in his big-screen starring debut after success in TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter," plays a tough-but-amiable nineteen-year-old Brooklyn youth, Tony Manero, who comes to feel he's living a "nowhere" life on his way "to no place" and slowly decides to change his prospects. He works in a paint store, stays with his parents, and lives only for Saturday nights at the "2001 Odyssey" disco club. There, he's Mr. Cool and everybody is his friend and admirer. Tony's bedroom is itself a virtual time capsule of the Seventies with posters of Bruce Lee, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, and Farrah Fawcett, plus lots of combs, brushes, and mirrors (hair was very big in the Seventies, very big).

Tony feels stuck in a place not of his choosing, raised in a low-income, working-class Italian family that never expected him to amount to much and never encouraged him to be anything, but now denigrate him for not getting anywhere. When he meets a young woman, Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), of like background who is trying to improve her position in life by moving to Manhattan, working in the city for a talent agency, and acquiring a little culture and sophistication, Tony begins questioning his own attitudes and ambitions.

Make no mistake: This is Travolta's picture from beginning to end. It's no wonder he was on top of the world at the time with "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" back to back, in both cases playing essentially the same character. (To be fair, his character in "Grease" is more broadly sweet and humorous, a caricature, really, whereas his character in "SNF" is a tad more genuine. Nevertheless, Travolta is fundamentally the same charming Vinnie Barbarino we have all come to know from television. His language might be earthier (the vulgarity in "SNF" is probably over-the-top even for "tough" Brooklyn kids), and he might appear to treat his old dance partner like dirt, but inside he's a basic Mr. Nice Guy. He'd better be; that, the music, and his dancing are his only saving graces in the film.

John Badham ("Dracula," "WarGames") directed from a script by Norman Wexler ("Joe," "Serpico"), adapted from a magazine piece by Nik Cohn. Badham tries to keep the film as raw and gritty as possible, filming much of it on location in actual Brooklyn locations. Unfortunately, Badham goes so far in trying to make his characters "real" that he actually makes them mostly unlikable. Tony's buddies (with names like Double J. and Bobby C.) are as crude and dead-end as Tony is, which doesn't make the story line too appealing but does indicate pretty strongly why Tony wants eventually to get out the hellhole he's living in.

Then there's the music. Ah, yes, the music. I suspect that as much as or more than Travolta's charm and dancing the music, mainly by the Bee Gees, sold the picture. There's no question it was hit material in its day and has passed into pop-classic status. Yet listening to "Staying Alive," "How Deep Is Your Love," "Night Fever," and "More Than a Woman" today is like listening to elevator music, it's so familiar. We've all heard it so many times from albums, radio, concerts, TV, and even other movies that it's bound to have lost a lot of its appeal and may only bring to mind countless song parodies. Be that as it may, the music sold millions of tickets, millions of records, and millions of DVDs. It remains to be seen if it can sell millions of BDs. We'll see.

For me, despite the movie's popularity, I could never see it as much more than a pop-culture phenomenon. The music, characters, and story seem hopelessly clichéd. Heck, there's even a gang fight, an unwanted pregnancy, and a troubled priest thrown in for good measure. If it weren't for the Bee Gees and Travolta's innate niceness and nifty dance moves, I doubt that the film would have lasted in the public's consciousness more than a few days, let alone become a worldwide sensation. Today, it's like a kind of '70s jukebox that hasn't quite aged that well.

The MPAA rated "Saturday Night Fever" R for strong language, sexuality, nudity, and some drug content.

John's film rating: 6/10

The Film According to Hock:
The mere mention of the words "Saturday Night Fever" conjures up images of polyester suits, bell-bottom pants, disco music, and the opening shot of Tony Manero (John Travolta) strutting down the street to the tune of "Staying Alive". Welcome back to the 1970s, baby! With enough fashion embarrassments to last one's lifetime crammed into a single movie, some may cringe at the DVD release of "Saturday Night Fever" on its 25th anniversary. However, as a cultural phenomenon, the popularity of "SNF" seems to defy any logical explanation. First released in 1977, "Saturday Night Fever" is one of a slew of early Travolta movies to hit the shelves recently in the DVD format. The others include "Grease", "Staying Alive", and "Urban Cowboy".

"SNF" is based loosely on a magazine article written by Nik Cohn titled "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night". It tells the story of 19-year old Tony Manero, a disco dance whiz from Brooklyn. The opening scenes of the movie introduce Tony as a suave ladies' man who seems to have everything going for him. However, first impressions are deceiving. For a guy with the looks and the moves, Tony's life is rather miserable. On the home front, Tony's family is as dysfunctional as they come, predating the Simpsons and the Costanzas by two decades. Although not meant to be comedic, his parents' antics ring mostly true to life, playing off of the image of a typical working-class Italian family. Still living at home, Tony has to cope with not only a dead-end job but also constant reminders that his older brother, Father Frank Jr., is inherently the better son by virtue of being a priest.

Tony's life takes a major detour from plunging into obscurity when he takes an interest in a dancer named Stephanie (newcomer Karen Lynn Gorney), who is slightly older and more mature than he. Stephanie, a local Brooklyn girl herself, tries to act classy and speak intelligently, but she is not without her own insecurities. She helps Tony realize that there is a better life outside the discotheques of Brooklyn and that he should seize any opportunity to make something of himself. Tony's friends are another story. They are a natural extension of his currently meaningless life. The difference between Tony and his friends, however, is that while he has found a new calling, they are still condemned to their present state of stagnation. Stephanie's positive influence on Tony functions as a slender silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud that envelops much of the movie.

The ending of "SNF" arrives rather abruptly. Many questions remain unresolved, and the potential for some of the subplots doesn't get fully realized when the credits begin to roll. For example, Tony's relationship with his older brother could have been developed into a more engaging storyline but was unfortunately neglected. Given all the great things that "SNF" had going for it, it is rather sad that the movie ended the way that it did. It is a pity that "SNF" will forever be known more for the music of the Bee Gees and John Travolta's dance routines than the intriguing stories it aspired to tell.

At his core, Tony is lovable but difficult to read. Admiring himself in the mirror as he styles his perfectly coiffed hair for a night out, Tony is as shallow and cocky as they come. Like his friends, Tony is rowdy, self-destructive, immature, sexist, and homophobic--all quintessential traits of an alpha male. However, Tony can also be caring and sensitive. Together, all these qualities make Tony a memorably complex persona.

John Travolta, in his first leading role, fits into the role of Tony like a glove and delivers an incredibly believable performance. All of Tony's cockiness and understated naivety seems to flow naturally from within Travolta. Travolta's acting and his interpretation of Tony could be termed as clichéd, but the truth is the character of Tony Manero IS a walking cliché. In fact, without realizing it, Travolta was typecast into such roles early in his career, as exemplified by his next role as Danny Zuko in "Grease". Only in his second renaissance as an actor was Travolta able to break out of that mold with great roles in "Pulp Fiction", "Get Shorty", and "Primary Colors".

To characterize "SNF" as a glorified music and dance movie is to miss its underlying theme of how young people are trying to escape their mundane existences for a better life. To understand how this theme gets played out in the movie, one must understand the social distinctions that make up New York City. The city, as represented in "SNF", features a dichotomy that consists of two different social classes: the working-class population of Brooklyn and the sophisticated socialites of Manhattan. It is a case of "the grass is always greener on the other side". With Stephanie acting as a catalyst, Tony becomes more and more disillusioned as the movie progresses and starts to think about leaving his less-than-perfect life behind in Brooklyn to start fresh in the big city of Manhattan--thus living up to the theme of the movie.

"SNF" tries to bring the realities of the troubled streets of Brooklyn to the silver screen. The movie is peppered with the use of vulgar language, sex, booze, and drugs to project the dark images of life on the streets. It succeeds to a certain extent in this respect, but I think some parts are simply overdone for the sake of notoriety. Despite its many flaws, the film's popularity at the time of its release is undeniable. Credit must be given to "SNF" for helping to define the disco era (even when it was already on its wane) and making superstars out of John Travolta and the Gibb brothers, all important points in pop culture history.

In essence, "Saturday Night Fever" without Travolta's dancing and the unforgettable Bee Gees music would be reduced to a straightforward and sometimes dark drama in need of better pacing and plot development. The life of Tony Manero is far from perfect, and the choices that he makes are questionable. However, what life is perfect? With the disco era and the New York City dance scene serving as its canvas, the movie paints a gritty picture of reality where the only escape is on the dance floor of a local discotheque. Granted, "SNF" may be only an average movie in my opinion, but it still deserves its place in movie history as a cultural marker. With the release of this DVD, will we see the second coming of disco? I highly doubt it. After all, as the saying goes, "disco is dead", and it should stay that way. The film reminds us of how enjoyably silly and shallow the first time was when disco was the rage.

Hock's film rating: 7/10

The Film According to Dean:
"Saturday Night Fever" was a little unsettling when the film was first released. The language, racist tones, sexual themes and John Travolta walking around in his underwear caused quite a stir when the film was released in December of 1977. Today, we look back at the film and ponder if the film should be thanked or cursed for its Bee Gees soundtrack and the song "Stayin' Alive." However, when the film was released, it spoke the language of the generation and showed the racial tensions of Brooklyn and the struggles and frustrations of teenage boys growing up in the big city at a time when big bell-bottoms were in fashion. "Saturday Night Fever" is a film that is about the music and the dancing, but more about the dead end existence of those that inhabit its frames and the meaningless lives they lead through most of the film. "Saturday Night Fever" is about not going anywhere in life, but feeling very good about one's self while doing so.

Tony Manero (John Travolta) works in a paint store for low wages and he works hard. He fights with his boss, but earns a small raise for his efforts. He needs to put shirts on layaway and is in constant struggle with his parents and his home life. Tony lives in the shadow of his older brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar), who has taken to a life of the cloth. Tony's friends Bobby C. (Barry Miller), Double J. (Paul Pape) and Barry Miller (Bobby C.) shout racist remarks and exist to only get drunk, stoned and laid and it doesn't matter what order. Tony's day-to-day life is as uninteresting as it can get and he is going nowhere in life fast. About the only things going for him in daily life is his hair and his looks, but he fears that maybe his hair is beginning to thin and his desires to keep his clothes sharp and clean consistently put him at odds with his friends. Tony has the same attitude and mannerisms of his friends. He treats women poorly and treats others as if they owe him something.

If his weekly life is rotten, Tony's weekends are completely opposite. He is the king of the dance floor and his Friday and Saturday nights are spend wasting every dollar he has owned on his weekend exploits and he routinely takes turns with the girls and the backseat of his friend's car. Tony is know for his exploits on the dance floor and many girls swoon over Tony and lust to discover his exploits elsewhere. Annette (Donna Pescow) has been walked all over by Tony and thrust aside when she previously refused to sleep with him. They were dance partners, but their partnership ended there. Tony dances with Annette, but continues to treat her poorly and uses her continual love for him only to his advantage and only take and never give. He discards her nightly for a better looking and better build dancer at the discotheque.

When a dance competition is announced, Annette talks Tony into forming a partnership under the pretense that they can win the competition. Tony quickly tells Annette that it will be dancing only, but the peppy girl hopes in rekindle a relationship and she is willing to give her body to him. Tony loses interest in the partnership when he feasts his eyes on Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), who appears to be his female equal on the dance floor. She first rejects his advances, but eventually agrees to become his partner. She appears to be older, far more mature, has more cultural and far more education. She is a woman and he is still a boy, but they dance well together and Tony begins to fall deeper and deeper for the 'bitchy' Stephanie. All the while, Annette continues to try and win Tony back, but is pushed further and further away until she sleeps with each and every one of Tony's friends in an attempt to spark some emotion in him.

The music ends and Tony and Stephanie win the competition. However, he finds the Latino couple to be the far more talented couple and shockingly gives them the trophy. This victory teaches him the shallowness of his friends and helps show him his lot in life. He learns a lot about himself and a lot about the world during this night and sends his relationship with Stephanie into new and unsettling directions. As the story winds down, Tony must question every aspect of his life and wonder where he is going and what he is doing. When the credits finally roll, Tony and Stephanie have agreed to be friends and finally find a true friendship, absent of the bullshit they spread thickly to one another and Tony looks out a window at perhaps a new life.

"Saturday Night Fever" is a film that pushed the envelope hard when it was released. It freely depicts sex, racially fueled violence and harsh language. The F-Bomb was dropped frequently and freely. The original version is not the family friendly PG-rated version that has routinely been spotted on network television over the years. Tony Manero is not a nice person and his character is quite despicable. There really are not endearing characters in "Saturday Night Fever" and although Tony and Stephanie win the competition, there is little or no happiness to be found. This is an honest look at an Italian teenager's existence in the late Seventies in the Big Apple and it is both unflinching and harsh. Stephanie is not a gorgeous love interest and is closer to a girl a street smart disco dancer would land during the era. "Saturday Night Fever" certainly strives to achieve some street cred and mixes it nicely with music and dancing. It isn't exactly a modern "West Side Story," but is far more pleasing to the Seventies generation.

Travolta is good as Tony Manero. I didn't like the character, but I enjoy Travolta as an actor and the dislike he generated towards his character is a testament of the performance. Tony is not a character that should be loved by the masses. He refuses to light a cigarette, has an ego larger than his collar and typically has nothing nice to say. The rest of the characters are also unlikable, but they are all so vividly realistic in their portrayals. I can fully buy into them being a polyester clad street gang from the times who fought with both fists and disco balls. Karen Lynn Gorney has to be my least favorite leading lady of all time. Her nasal voice and appearance are not appealing and her bitch attitude is easily despised. This lends to the honest characters in the film. Not everybody is a beauty queen and the character of Stephanie is true to the person you would have found in the setting of the film.

This is an entertaining movie and I enjoy watching it first and foremost for the soundtrack, but also for the story it tells. It looks at a loser and his life and how he wants to be more down deep, but is content in being an ego-driven asshole who steps on everybody in order to be the king. You don't see the characters you see in "Saturday Night Fever" everyday and Hollywood is typically afraid of bringing this sort of story to life. Watching "Saturday Night Fever" is akin to listening to N.W.A.'s album "Straight Outta Compton." They both paint an ugly picture of life in a big city for minority teens. This isn't African American males being beat down by the police on the streets of Los Angeles. It is about Italian American's not fitting in with anybody but themselves, but battling it out on the dance floors of Brooklyn. There are harsh themes and the movie looks at each of them nicely.

The film is a wonderful snapshot of 1977. It is not as pertinent today as it was when it was first released, but some of the themes and problems faced by Tony Manero and friends still exist today for today's youths. However, many of the problems and ills in society that are depicted in the film have changed. The disco music is gone, but dance clubs remain. Fashion has definitely changed, but the only major dance competitions seem to belong on reality television. "Saturday Night Fever" is still entertaining, but more for its portal into the past than its relation to the present. John Travolta was a multi-faceted talent when he danced his way through these scenes and he is far from the figure he has become today. If you want to remember disco, White Castle burgers, oversized collars and polyester suits, then "Saturday Night Fever" will be a nice trip down memory lane. If you want to avoid those things, then I suggest you avoid this little film.

Dean's film rating: 7/10

Video:
A lot of the shortcomings of this Blu-ray transfer stem from the way director Badham shot it, from the various filters and forms of lighting he used, and from the condition of the original print. The Paramount team used an MPEG-4/AVC video codec and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce the film in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The fact is, though, that despite their best intentions, the film comes off looking a tad rough--partly from grain, partly from age, partly intentional. The high definition fluctuates from razor sharp to somewhat soft, and interior shots are often vague, with differing levels of detail in the darker areas. Outdoor shots usually come off best, quite bright and vivid, followed by facial tones, which are generally realistic.

Audio:
The audio engineers use a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 format to reproduce the sound, but I'm afraid what seemed really good in 1977 doesn't quite compare to the best available sound these days. The remixed 5.1 track starts out promisingly with an overhead transit train traveling from the front speakers to the rear, but that's about it. Mainly, what we get in the rear speakers is a touch of ambient musical enhancement and a few crowd and street noises. As far as frequency response and dynamic ranges are concerned, they seem limited, constricted, with not the best highs, lows, or impact. It's not bad sound, mind you, just not terribly impressive. The front-channel stereo spread is excellent, and the midrange is decent enough, smooth and natural most of the time, although the music itself can be a bit forward, thin, and edgy.

Extras:
What we get on the Blu-ray disc is the "30th Anniversary Special Collector's Edition" extras, most of them produced in 2007 and all of them in standard definition. First up is an audio commentary by the director, John Badham, who is always entertaining to listen to and, needless to say, authoritative in his comments. Next is "'70s Discopedia," a set of pop-up trivia notes that when selected play during the film. After that is series of five featurettes under the umbrella title "Catching the Fever." You can play them singly or all at once, in which case they total a little over fifty-two minutes. Each of the featurettes includes comments by the director, producer, and several cast and crew members. The segments are "A 30-Year Legacy," "Making Soundtrack History," "Platforms & Polyester," "Deejays & Discos," and "Spotlight on Travolta."

After those items is a nine-minute featurette called "Back to Bay Ridge," where actor Joseph Cali (Joey) takes us on a tour of the Brooklyn shooting locations for the film. Then, there's "Dance Like Travolta with John Cassese," a ten-minute bit with "The Dance Doctor," who gives you some tips on your dance moves; "Fever Challenge!," a sort-of dance game; and three deleted scenes totaling about three-and-a-half minutes.

The extras conclude with twenty-one scene selections; bookmarks; a guide to elapsed time; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
My reaction to "Saturday Night Fever" after all these years is much like my reaction to "Grease"; namely, the movie seems fairly ordinary, and I can't say I like it as much as my colleagues do (my giving it a 6/10 and the others giving it a 7/10). Still, "Saturday Night Fever" is an important film in its depiction of the late '70s, and one cannot dismiss its cultural import, which today may be part of its corny appeal. Therefore, it's a film you can watch on several different levels: You can enjoy it straight; you can enjoy its historical significance; or you can enjoy its camp appeal.

Say, I wonder where Tony Manero is today and how he's doing? (Apart from the inferior sequel, "Staying Alive," in 1983.)

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
7
Film Value
7