Saturday Night Fever
There are some fines that represent a decade. They are able to capture the look and feel of the time perfectly. Then there is another type of film that goes beyond this and actually defines the time. These films are so influential that what they portray becomes part of the culture and directs it. One film that is in the later category is without any doubt, ‘Saturday Night Fever’. It took a simple story and used it as a basis to launch, for better or for worse, the disco fad of the seventies. By this point in history the Viet Nam war was over. The youth of America no longer listened to protest rock. The guitar, bass and drums of the sixties, intended to listen to while in a state of psycho-chemical alteration had given way to dance music vocals. For those out there too young to remember disco was defined by style of substance. The clothing, music and social habits were all highly stylized. The drug of choice became cocaine and sex became something to do between going to clubs and dancing. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ ignited the spark for disco to gain world wide popularity. This was one of the first movies to have a soundtrack become the number one selling record in the country. It cemented John Travolta as a super star and made the Bee Gees the most popular group in the nation. Every retrospective of the seventies pays homage to it. Other films have parodied the many famous scenes in this film. The film has reached the iconic cult status that few could dream for. It is hard to believe it but it has been thirty years since the release of this film. Paramount first released this film to DVD in October of 2002 but now they have the added it to their growing ‘Special Collector’s Edition’ series as a twentieth anniversary release. For New Yorkers like me this film is special for another reason. It provides a snap shot of our city in its peak. Like the music and fashions shown in the film the city is a major character and its frozen in time here.
The film opens with a panoramic view over the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. The new Twin Towers appear in the background. As the camera pulls back we see a quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bay Ridge. As the viewpoint pans down pass the elevated ‘B’ line train the music of the Bee Gees begins. We see the legs and feet of a young man as he walks down the street. Even before we see the man fully his feet show that he has a confident swagger to his baring. The young man is Tony Manero (John Travolta) who with his shirt open to show his gold chain struts for all to see. Tony lives with his parents, Frank (Val Bisoglio) and Flo (Julie Bovasso) but more importantly in the shadow of his older brother, Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar), a priest. The only thing that Tony has going for him is his popularity which is largely based on his ability to dance in the night clubs that he and his friends frequent. Tony is the envy of his friends and the object of attention of most of the young women in the neighborhood. Tony divides the female population into two categories; nice girls and tramps. He can be friends with the nice girls, sort of, but won’t sleep with them because he would loose respect for them. ‘Tramps’ on the other hand are fair game. One girl in the former category, Annette (Donna Pescow) worships Tony. He will dance with her but off the dance floor will hardly associate with her. When Tony and his friends hear about a disco contest with a first prize of $500 Tony knows he needs the best possible partner to showcase his considerable talent. Annette wants to be that partner but Tony has his eyes on Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney). She is not only the ideal partner for Tony she represents a major goal he has. She has gotten out of Brooklyn and works in Manhattan as a secretary. If she could get out of the neighborhood so can he.
This film is the two edged sword that help make disco popular and propel John Travolta to super stardom. Even if you never liked disco music this film is infectious with its numerous dance numbers. Largely due to Travolta’s energy this film will pull in even the most musically member of the audience. There is a human, relatable story here of a young man that has to pull himself away from the expectations of his family to find his own way in the world. For Tony what he has is his dancing, his style and his confidence. While that may not seem like much to base a life on it is all he really has. While the film leans heavily on the style there is some substance here. The emotional arc given to Tony is realistic and something that almost everyone can readily identify with. This movie works because it is based in reality. There are little slices of life shown such as the uniquely Brooklyn habit of stacking two slices of pizza to eat on the go. The clubs may be fantasy but the film is rooted in reality.
This is the first film to make John Travolta a star. After this he followed up with ‘Grease’ taking him forever away from his television personal of Vinnie Barbarino in ‘Welcome Back Kotter’. He simply put owns the role of Tony. The swagger, the style and the dancing would follow Travolta throughout his career. In the scene where it gets dressed for a night out other actors would have just thrown on the clothes. Travolta takes this simple action in a novel direction. It is more like he is a knight preparing to go into battle. Each action is deliberate, performed with great care. The little touches like this make his performance one of his best.
I have had the pleasure to review a number of Paramount’s ‘Special Collector’s Edition’ series. Each and every time I am rewarded with a DVD release that is noteworthy. Not only are they choosing films that had certain significance in the history of cinema they include extras that examine every possible aspect of production. Of course the 1.85:1 anamorphic video never looked better. The revamped Dolby 5.1 audio is the best you have ever heard this film. First there is a commentary track by director John Badham where he goes into great detail of decisions he made to create this film. There are also a ton of featurettes to keep you busy for hours after watching the film.
Catching the Fever: (broken down as follows)
A 30 Year Legacy
Back to Bay Ridge
The Brooklyn neighborhood is more than a setting it is a character in the film
Dance Like Travolta with John Cassese
A choreographer helps teach the viewer the signature moves Travolta used in the film.
A little game that has you click on lights on the dance floor
Paramount is like the New York Yankees of the fifties, one big win after another. This movie is part of out cultural history and should be in your collection. Even though there was a PG rated cut shown in theaters this is the original R rated version so this may not be the right film for the younger members of the family.