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.
"SNF" comes to us in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Paramount did a great job with this transfer--it is mainly free from any major defects. Some scenes appear darker than they should be, but your viewing enjoyment isn't severely impacted by the sometimes-skewed lighting scheme. The colors are natural, and fleshtones are pretty accurate. For a movie celebrating its 25th anniversary, there is no better tribute than to restore the picture quality to its former glory.
Along with the video, the audio of the DVD also received considerable attention. Boasting a newly-created Dolby Digital 5.1 English mix, the DVD offers crystal clear dialogue and music that is full of life. The rear surround speakers are used to great effect, projecting immersive background noises during scenes in crowded places.
Apart from the DD 5.1 mix, there are options for English and French DD 2.0 surround tracks. Also included are English and Spanish subtitles. For those who are fond of singing along to the catchy Bee Gees tunes, turn on the subtitles for the lyrics as the music plays.
Anyone who purchased the "Grease" DVD knows about the lack of extras on that disc. Alas, "SNF" suffers from almost the same fate. Only three extras have been included: an audio commentary by director John Badham, highlights from the VH-1 "Behind the Music" documentary chronicling the history of "SNF", and a set of three deleted scenes. Noticeably missing is the theatrical trailer, a staple on almost all DVDs nowadays. Why do you neglect to include trailers on some of your DVDs, Paramount?
Badham's audio commentary is above average, and his sometimes-deadpan delivery can be quite humorous. Badham reveals lots of interesting background details about how and where particular scenes were shot and the many problems that plagued the production of the movie.
The VH-1 "Behind the Music" special is a 30-minute program that previously aired on the music-oriented channel. It is an interesting piece mainly comprised of interviews with the principal filmmakers. Compared to most "making-of" featurettes, this VH-1 program offers more insights rather than the usual marketing fluff. One of the highlights of this feature is a never-before-seen clip of Travolta rehearsing his famed dance moves. Film critic Roger Ebert appears briefly to talk about his late friend Gene Siskel, who had a well-known obsession with "SNF". (For many years, Siskel owned Travolta's white suit from the movie).
The three deleted scenes are presented in widescreen without commentary. Although mildly interesting, they would have been better served with some explanation concerning why they were removed from the movie.
Like "Grease", "SNF" comes in a custom-designed Digipak slipcase. Chapter listings appear on a glossy insert.
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.