SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray (Paramount 1977) Paramount Home Video
Few movies can rightly be called a ‘cultural phenomenon’; fewer still so inextricably locked into a time capsule extolling the virtues of white polyester, glitter balls and platform shoes. What can I tell you? It was the seventies; a decade devoted to self-love, and all the outrageousness in synthetic bling money could buy. And while it is probably a safe bet no one associated with Saturday Night Fever (1977) meticulously plotted to create a Smithsonian artifact (some would suggest, ‘relic’ as a more accurate descriptor here), one effectively to live on with the throb of Bee Gees-infused falsetto disco twang still ringing in our ears, in essence, that is precisely what has become of this movie 40 years later. Saturday Night Fever lives on, not so much for its obsessively horrendous odes to bad taste; costume designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein basically buying off the rack to create the film’s distinct uber-flash in a thoroughly gaudy pastiche of opioid-inducing hallucinatory splashes of color, but rather for its youth-stained tragic disillusionment, not only with the rules of engagement, but also achieving and maintaining a sort of thousand watt, form-fitting god-like aura of confidence that the anti-heroic Tony Manero only seems to possess and emit in spades every Saturday night at the 2001 Oddyssey Club in Brooklyn (simultaneously spelled and misspelled on the club’s exterior…very ‘odd’ indeed). Trademark or bad signage painted by a beauty school dropout…who can say?
John Travolta, nearing the end of his run as Vinnie Barbarino on TV’s beloved sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter (1975-79), had caught the eye of producer, Robert Stigwood who, within a period of a few short months would cast the actor in the one-two knockout punch, effectively to catapult Travolta’s career into the stratosphere with this, and the other titanic blockbuster musical of the decade, Grease (1978). Nothing about Norman Wexler’s original screenplay suggested Saturday Night Fever as a ‘musical’; Wexler basing his prose on journalist, Nik Cohn’s New York Magazine article, ‘Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night’. This was brought to Wexler’s attention by Stigwood. Travolta, who had also read Cohn’s piece, immediately gravitated to the part, pouring his energies into crafting what is today considered the archetypal image of the decade; freeze frames of Travolta stepping out on the multi-colored back lit dance floor in his form-fitting white polyester, indelibly etched to exemplify the look of a generation - endlessly copied and lampooned for generations yet to follow it.
With two major albums released thus far, the Bee Gees were discovering their popularity on the wane. Mercifully, their momentary downward spiral was put on permanent pause with an impromptu phone call from Stigwood. At present, the Bee Gees were in the middle of another recording session inside France’s acoustically famed studio, Chateau D’Herouville. Stigwood, who sought to use several songs from the band’s previous albums was immediately smitten by several of the as yet unreleased recordings he was invited to hear from these sessions. ‘Night Fever’ was not among them; a song Stigwood felt contained ‘pornographic’ connotations (though it nevertheless made it into the movie). The producer’s eclectic blurring of the Bee Gees previous hits with four new songs bought outright from these sessions would not only comprise the bulk of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but also create the iconic disco anthem and go on to become one of the biggest and best-selling ‘movie soundtracks’ of all time with ‘Staying Alive’ achieving legendary status virtually overnight. Even today, it is impossible to hear the opening throb of those impish chords without instantly thinking of Travolta’s exaggerated strut, paint can in hand, and, in perfect rhythm to the music, skirt-chasing his way through a failed attempt at a phone number from a shapely passerby, momentarily pausing for two thoroughly greasy slices of pizza, dropping a fiver down payment on a new polyester blue shirt, and finally, making his way to a meager retail sales gig at the local hardware store.
Even so, the real tour de force, as far as the movie is concerned, is Tony Manero’s electric moves inside the Oddyssey to another Bee Gees’ masterpiece, ‘You Should Be Dancing’; as Bob Hope quipped later that year at the Oscars, Travolta “wearing his threads from the inside out”. Our introduction to Tony’ nightclubbing alter ego is hardly flattering. He is insatiably cocky - even cruel to Connie, a fawning extra (played by Fran Drescher) as he takes to the floor to put on his show. In effect, this is the one place where Tony Mareno is king; shedding his impossibly Italian/even more insufferably Catholic upbringing as the extras cluttering this promenade suddenly melt away for his benefit; the multi-colored dance tiles complimenting his fitful gyrations, one erotic hip swivel at a time. Travolta, who has since come to be regarded as a dancer, actually had no formal training as such when he proceeded to mesmerize this entourage of sycophants (and, by extension – the audience). Thus, it remains a true testament to his graceful execution of these endlessly parodied disco moves, that even now, 40 years separated from that gritty epoch of kitsch, climax and cliché, he can still take the most laughably overplayed and exaggerated interchanges and make them uber-cool, fresh and exhilarating rather than idiotic.
Twenty-three year old Travolta is playing nineteen year old, Anthony ‘Tony’ Manero; the quintessence of a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn Italian stallion, perpetually gold-chained and in narcissistic pursuit of the perfect hairdo. Tony lives with his parents, Frank (Val Bisoglio) and Flo (Julie Bovasso), a younger sibling, Linda (Lisa Peluso) and his grandmother (Nina Hansen). An elder brother, Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) has made good, having left home to become a priest – the pride and joy of his mother. Frank Sr. is a bitter man, angry at having been laid off from work for more than a year, resulting in Tony working a dead-end job at a small hardware store to pay the family’s bills. Tony’s boss, Dan Fusco (Sam Coppola) tries to give him some good solid advice. “You don’t f_ck with the future…it f_cks with you if you’re not prepared for it!” Still, it is pretty hard to argue with Tony’s outlook and desire to escape this otherwise lethal mix of ennui and monotony; his one satisfaction achieved on the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey disco nightclub. Tony’s entourage includes Joey (Joseph Cali), Double J. (Paul Pape) and Gus (Bruce Ornstein). On the fringe are Bobby C. (Barry Miller), an insecure straggler in search of a male hero to worship, and Annette (Donna Pescow); the neighborhood gal pal, despairing for a physical relationship with Tony. Both Bobby and Annette will come to realize they have been used in their own way. Each will end their association with this clique unhappily.
A rite of passage for the group is a quick stop on the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge. At one point Tony, Double J. and Gus fool Annette into believing they have toppled over the side to their death. When Annette rushes to the edge, only to discover the trio comfortably clinging to the metal rigging, she is mortified. The bridge is significant for Tony because it symbolizes ‘another life’ waiting for him in more suburban Staten Island. At present, the Odyssey has announced a dance competition with prize money. Tony is a shoe-in. Annette would like to be his dance partner. And although Tony casually agrees, his head is almost immediately turned to reconsider this promise when he sees Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney); a bright young woman who dazzles from horn to hoof with her professional dance moves. Tony attempts to woo Stephanie with his usual ‘big dumb male’ bravura. She is hardly impressed. In fact, she thinks him a colossal joke. In movie-land terms: it’s love at first sight, even if Stephanie does not know it yet. Tony trails Stephanie to the dance studio where she rehearses. He begs her indulgence for just a moment; a chance to pitch the idea for helping him become a better dancer – (and maybe, even a better man). Stephanie is intrigued and accepts Tony’s wager, though strictly on a professional level. She wants to win the prize money. And so the mentoring begins. Tony proves a very quick study. There is a definite spark between them.
Meanwhile, Tony's elder brother, Frank Jr. confides he has left the priesthood. Flo is naturally upset by this turn of events. But Tony and Frank’s brotherly bond is arguably the emotional center of this movie. For although the brothers have taken different paths in life, neither is particularly contented in their choices. Moreover, Tony feels vindicated by Frank Jr.’s confession. So Frank isn’t perfect, as he has been led to believe. And Frank’s abdication means Tony is no longer the black sheep of the family. Well…sort of. Meanwhile, while on his way home from the convenience store, Gus is attacked by a Hispanic gang, brutally beaten and hospitalized with considerable contusions and broken bones. From his hospital bed, Gus weakly suggests to Tony and his pals his attackers were the Barracudas. Meanwhile, Bobby C. is desperately trying to get out of a sticky relationship with his devoutly Catholic girlfriend, Pauline (who we never meet); recently made pregnant with his child. Facing pressure from his family to marry, Bobby nervously inquiries if the Pope can grant dispensation for an abortion. After Frank explains the unlikelihood of this happening Bobby becomes even more morose. Believing if he lets Tony borrow his 1964 Chevrolet Impala to help move Stephanie from Bay Ridge to Manhattan he can get a little badly needed ‘one on one’ advice from the only guy whose opinion matters to him, Bobby is sorely disillusioned when Tony’s promise to telephone later never comes to fruition.
Determined to avenge Gus’ beating, Tony, Double J. and Joey force a showdown at the Barracudas clubhouse; Tony steering Bobby’s Impala through their closed garage door. The boys kick some proverbial butt, but equally get theirs kicked in the process by offending gang members. Proud of their kamikaze assault, the boys turn up bloody and bruised at the hospital to relay their ‘victory’ to Gus who now sheepishly confesses he does not know for a fact it was the Barracudas responsible for his beating. It was dark. Gus never saw his attackers. Tony is outraged and storms out of Gus’ hospital room, followed by Double J. and Joey. Later, the boys arrive at the Odyssey; Tony, in his best polyester for the dance-off. He and Stephanie create a sensation for their fans and the judges. But their act is overshadowed by a stellar performance from rival couple, Maria (Adrienne Framet) and Hector (Joseph Pugliese); a pair of Puerto Ricans who are positively electric. Regardless, the biased Deejay (Monty Rock III) awards the coveted First Prize to Tony and Stephanie. This doesn’t wash with Tony.
Disgusted by the club’s racism, also his friends defiance to support the ruling, Tony hands over both the First Place trophy and its accompanying prize money to Hector and Maria. Stephanie is mildly put off by his generosity and all but repulsed when Tony attempts to simply throw her into the backseat of Bobby’s car for a little action on the side. Tony paws at Stephanie. She knees him in the nuts and storms off. Dumped by what ought to have been his sure thing, Tony now attempts to be chivalrous toward Annette who Double J. and Joey suggest has willingly agreed to have sex with all of them in tandem. Tony is hardly in the mood. Instead, he rides shotgun with Bobby in the front seat while Joey and Double J. take their turns raping Annette in the backseat. While Annette thought she might use the boys to make Tony jealous, his ambivalence now – and his admonishment of her as ‘just a cunt’ afterward, leaves Annette feeling cheap, used and suicidal. Nevertheless, Bobby is angry too; fed up with Tony’s lack of friendship, he climbs over the guard rails of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge to prove he can be just as macho. Tony is genuinely concerned. He has never seen Bobby like this before. Alas, Bobby loses his footing and plummets off the side of the bridge to his death.
Thoroughly disenchanted with life, family and friends, Tony rides the subway back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan all night long. As dawn breaks, he arrives on Stephanie's stoop to beg for her forgiveness. She jokingly suggests “I’ve never let a known rapist into my apartment before” but can genuinely see a change in Tony’s outlook on life. He’s frightened, alone and nervous about his future. For the first time, he may sincerely realize he doesn’t really have one. Tony’s sincerity is a welcomed change of pace. Stephanie suggests they can start anew as ‘just friends’ – a bond, possibly to lead to better days ahead. A shaky Tony agrees to try and be the man Stephanie deserves.
Saturday Night Fever is today considered a ‘time capsule’. However, placed in its proper context, it certainly did not start out that way; rather, a movie with incidental music set in the ‘then’ present – a gritty, meaningful representation of the times with something relevant and universal to say about youth struggling to find their place in the adult world. We should also point out when the picture had its premiere the disco era was already on the wane; its resurgence immediately following Saturday Night Fever’s premiere – however short-lived – ensuring its place in movie-land echelons as a genuine zeitgeist, not only ‘of’ the times, but for ‘all time’. While Paramount execs were extremely nervous about the crude explicates being bandied about casually, no one could argue with the meteoric box office returns. Then, as now, if it makes money it must be good. Yet, where ever and whenever it has played since, Saturday Night Fever has drawn crowds around the block and sold out engagements for months in advance.
Virtually every young man from sixteen to thirty – including yours truly – desired to emulate ‘the look’ of Travolta’s polyester white suit and black shirt for his prom, wedding or just a really hot date night. The seventies verve for piled high and heavily hair sprayed coiffeurs, enormous platform shoes and ghastly body-hugging synthetics, dripping in sequins to reflect the glitter balls shimmering down in a multitude of tie-dyed colors and gaudy patterns, typified a generation hung up and drunk on its own superficial stardust: the era of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, the burgeoning gay/drug scene and notorious nightclubbing going on inside New York’s Studio 54 – all of it registering in a level of unprecedented hedonism, is sanctified in this movie in Hollywood-ized glamor; essentially, with all of its rawer seediness expunged. Saturday Night Fever may be gritty in its own right. Yet, even under the weight of its atrocious spectacle, the picture attains a heart-felt, if slightly softcore center; the characters genuine and pining for understanding beneath their slavish devotion to relatively inexpensive 8th Street duds, defiantly exercised via divine decadence.
Saturday Night Fever may not be a movie ‘of today’ anymore. Yet, despite changing times and tastes, the intensity of the picture’s drama holds up incredibly well; the James Dean/Sal Mineo-esque friendship between Tony Manero and Bobby C. (that attracted both Travolta and Barry Miller to these parts) brought to full fruition with as much tragedy. The heartbreak of the piece is genuine too; Annette’s sacrificed virginity, Tony’s wounded disillusionment with his friends – revealed as fair-weather sycophants who willingly lie to please him; Bobby’s complete implosion and act of madness…or was it suicide? We’ll likely never know. In the end, Saturday Night Fever overwhelms with its unvarnished truths. In spite of our ever-evolving social spheres of influence, the main staples in humanity’s mad inhuman noise have not matured beyond those angry, wounded, brittle and resolutely raw emotions so shrewdly expressed in Norman Wexler’s screenplay. For certain, Saturday Night Fever’s popularity has long since overshadowed Nik Cohn’s New York article. It really is Cohn’s observations we have to thank for this movie; Wexler, merely finessing them with dialogue to compliment, though never detract from the essential malaise of a pop culture on the brink of its own nervous breakdown. The characters populating Saturday Night Fever are real; the actors cast to play them, truer still. All have found their momentary release in dancing. We believe in them, feel their anxiety and ache for something to burst and liberate them and us from the tyranny of these uncertain times. The answer: at least according the seventies, was to be unearthed in disco – taking to the floor to blow off a little well-timed, if frenetic steam. ‘You Should Be Dancing’ – indeed.
For its 40th Anniversary reissue, Saturday Night Fever has been restored in 4K from the original camera negative. A genuine pity Paramount Home Video saw no point in releasing a day-and-date UHD. Nevertheless, this 1080p presentation delivers the ‘wow’ effect: filmic and very sharp. Grain appears indigenous to its source and, with a few minor caveats, is consistently handled throughout, allowing Ralf D. Bode’s cinematography to really shine. We get precise detailing in everything from fabrics to skin tones; all of it effortlessly resolved with astounding clarity. Colors are appropriately gaudy and fine detail is evident even in the smoky-lit nightclub or on locations shot at night. There are virtually zero to complain about here. Paramount has advertised the DTS 5.1 as newly enhanced. I have the older release. But comparing these two discs I must admit it is difficult, if not impossible to distinguish the upgrades. If I had to guess, I would suggest the new 40th offers marginally more spatial separation; less frontal in its discharge of dialogue and SFX. The Bee Bees score sounds impressive. While the audio is arguably ‘enhanced’, it nevertheless sounds indigenous to its source. This is the highest compliment I can pay it. Extras, save one (the brief ‘Back to Bay Ridge’ featuring Joseph Cali revisiting locations where the movie was shot) have all been ported over from the previous Blu-ray release and include a six part documentary – ‘Catching the Fever’ with interviews from most of the principle cast (minus John Travolta) affectionately waxing about their participation; also, a deleted scene, a picture-in-picture factoid track, and featurettes instructing how to dance like Travolta. Bottom line: I am usually not for double-dipping. But this newly minted 40th Anniversary illustrates marked improvements in overall image quality and deserves consideration. It is as good as Saturday Night Fever is ever likely to look – barring a UHD release. Highly recommended! You should be dancing too!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)