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Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother you're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Paramount's 30th Anniversary Special Collector's Edition Blu-ray of Saturday Night Fever takes us back to Christmas 1977. The disco trend had peaked the year before, when any college party in Los Angeles might be an excuse to teach line dancing: the big radio hit the previous summer was Disco Star Wars. Magazine articles had already documented the wild times had by the hardcore club crowd. For the young, affluent and beautiful, disco meant glamour, drugs and sex. Producer Robert Stigwood pounced on a piece by Nik Cohn about the club scene in New York, and signed TV star John Travolta for three pictures. The story by screenwriter Norman Wexler (Serpico) focused on the working-class disco scene on the mean streets of Brooklyn.
Hardware store clerk Tony Manero is a dude variation on the previous year's Italian-American movie underdog, Rocky. On Saturday nights Tony transforms into the king of the dance floor, where he's the envy of his friends. Girls regularly throw themselves at Tony, but even with the dance trophies and easy conquests he can tell that something's wrong. He's too big for this neighborhood but hasn't got what it takes to cross to Manhattan in search of a better life: no money, no education, no class.
Saturday Night Fever single-handedly remade the nightclub scene in its own image. Because Brooklyn's real 2001 Club was too dull, the filmmakers installed a fancy under-lit dance floor; now every nightclub had to have one. The film's too-tight polyester suits became the norm, many with flared pants that looked terrible on most men. Shorter guys wore ridiculous platform shoes and gold chains, and fussed over their hairstyles. It's more than a little strange seeing the film's tough Brooklyn kids adopting what a year or two before had been strictly gay fashions. After Fever the whole country dressed that way. By 1980 every young (or not-so-young) stud was showing off their chest hair in a loud shirt with an oversized collar.
Meet the King of Disco.
Saturday Night Fever drew crowds eager to see the Next Big Thing, John Travolta. The star of TV's Welcome Back, Kotter appealed to most everyone, including the gay crowd. For starters, Travolta is terrific on the dance floor, swinging his hips like Elvis Presley. Audiences came just to see him dance. Sometime in the middle 1960s Hollywood had seemingly forgotten how to film dance numbers. Fever's are exceptionally good, maintaining a credible club context while showcasing Travolta's star moves.
Under the glitz is a strong story, well directed by John Badham. The frank profanity and crude sex were unusual for 1977, especially in such an abusive context. Tony Manero and his neighborhood buddies resemble the sex-obsessed bums of Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, except that they regularly commit acts of date rape: "You make it with some of these chicks, they think you gotta dance with them." The Brooklyn neighborhood is such a closed social system that the heartbroken Annette (Donna Pescow) gets herself stoked up on pills and submits to a gang-rape. Poor Bobby C. (Barry Miller) has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and can't get anyone to sympathize; a situation made worse by the fact that he clearly has a crush on Tony. The base attitudes and unexpressed despair also find expression in racial hatred, as shown when Manero's gang cruises the streets looking for a Puerto Rican to beat up.
Tony preens and puffs before his mirror, ignoring the razzing from his unemployed father: "You know, I work on my hair a long time and you hit it. He hits my hair!" He callously drops Annette to chase another. Potential dance partner Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) is different. Stephanie is from Brooklyn but has made a start at a Manhattan talent agency, and doesn't want to be pulled back to the old neighborhood. Stephanie refuses to lie down for Tony, providing a good example and teaching him respect for others. Perhaps there is a future beyond working behind a paint counter and watching his friends self-destruct.
Tony Manero's Brooklyn is coarse and ugly, but authentic locations and sensitive direction make Saturday Night Fever's much more than a vehicle for a sitcom heartthrob. The appalling pre- AIDS sex attitudes now seem less "Guys and Dolls" than "Slobs and Sluts". Tony Manero's buddies whine about the lack of opportunities but are unwilling to do anything to improve themselves. Tony earns our sympathy because he shows signs of taking responsibility for himself. He's also smart enough to realize that his stardom on the neighborhood dance floor is a very impermanent thing.
How deep is your love?
But the audiences worldwide came for the glamorous disco action. With its hit songs dominating the radio dial, Saturday Night Fever did phenomenal business everywhere. The white-suited John Travolta became one of the strongest icons of the seventies, strutting to those Bee Gees songs. The film's original soundtrack was the top seller until Michael Jackson's Thriller seven years later. Disco rebounded in popularity and stayed strong for at least three more years -- although music historians claim that mainstream overexposure contributed to its decline.
Saturday Night Fever was so popular that Paramount prepared a PG-rated version that replaced the film's wall-to-wall profanity and rape scenes with alternates prepared for television. The softened cut was released on VHS but hasn't been seen since.
Paramount's Blu-ray of Saturday Night Fever: 30th Anniversary Special Collector's Edition hasn't looked this good since it was new. Digital work has coaxed new life out of Ralf Bode's images, without brightening the disco scenes as was done in some earlier video transfers. Dolby True-HD 5.1 tracks are included in English and French.
A wealth of disc extras remind us of the fleeting glories of the Disco years. Soft-spoken director John Badham provides a full commentary, and five featurettes examine the film's notoriety, its star and its soundtrack. Bee Gee Barry Gibb explains that the "All American" disco score was composed by Australians, mostly in a country recording studio in France.
A top Deejay shares memories of the scene at Club 54, while costume designer Patrizia von Brandenstein analyzes the crazy fashions of the time -- platform shoes and glitzy clothing designed to catch the disco lights. Travolta's white suit & black shirt combination suddenly started showing up everywhere.
Only three brief deleted scenes are included -- one may be an alternate. Actor Joseph Cali ("Joey") takes us on a video tour of the Brooklyn locations, many of which are still standing; one can still order a slice of pizza "John Travolta style." Dance instructor John Cassese conducts a practical lesson to "Dance like John Travolta" in the contest scene. Fever Challenge is an interactive dance game, while the 70's Discopedia turns out to be a trivia track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.