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Saturday Night Fever (Blu-ray)
Paramount Home Entertainment / 1977 / 118 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: May 05, 2009
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Thursday, April 30, 2009
'Saturday Night Fever's most iconic image is also its albatross: John Travolta, arm raised skyward, adorned in gold chains and a white polyester suit. It came to symbolize the epitome of disco and all of its decadence; an era, pre-AIDS, when it was still fun to stay up all night, boogie until dawn, and wake up not remembering what you did or who you were with the night before. But 'Saturday Night Fever' is more than a mere "disco movie," it's a film that transcended its time and penetrated the popular consciousness. It is tough, gritty, electric. It inspired a dance craze and sent white suit sales skyrocketing. And is proof that we should never, ever wear polyester again.
Tony Manero (Travolta) is 19 years-old, lives in Brooklyn, is the son of a deeply religious Italian family and works at the local paint shop. He, like many lower middle-class, blue collar kids of his generation, is "nowhere, goin' no place." Cornered by his suffocating home life and a future of servitude selling paint cans, he spends his nights with his buddies at the Odyssey 2001, a nightclub where Tony and his gang rule. His boss puts it into perspective: "You can't fuck the future, Tony. It catches up with you and it fucks you, if you ain't planned for it." But when he is on the dance floor, Tony is king.
Tony's life changes when he meets Stephanie (Karen Lynn-Gorney), a young dancer as sophisticated and worldly as Tony is uncultured and gruff. (Her appraisal of him is direct and razor sharp: "You're a cliche.") Tony does not disagree. For him, she represents a dilemma common to many young men of the late 1970s: a woman he wants, even loves, but if he seduces and sleeps with her, he can no longer respect her, because then she will be like easy Annette (Donna Pescow) and all the other girls at the Odyssey who worship him and would completely submit to his every whim and desire. Tony and his friends cannot see women as equals, only objects. It is not until Tony makes his first, tentative steps toward his dream -- to escape across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan -- that he embarks on the journey to becoming a man.
Directed by John Badham, 'Saturday Night Fever' is a smart and realistic little movie, filled with terrific dance sequences, great music, and a star-making performance by Travolta. His moves have become legends like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but with the fire and energy of a young Michael Jackson. But although 'Fever' is a great dance movie and has a seminal soundtrack (the epic Bee Gees tunes like "Stayin' Alive" and "Jive Talkin'" have rightly become classics) and Travolta is terrific, that doesn't full explain its enormous popularity. I suspect Tony Manero was so embraced as a cultural icon because, like all of us at that age, he was a dreamer. In the film's most poignant scene, he sits on a bench with Stephanie, staring at the Brooklyn Bridge. He knows every fact about it, down to how many steel girders and beams and pounds of concrete were needed to build it. And he clings to his dreams so desperately that it is impossible not to cheer his crowning moment on the dance floor. He may be goin' nowhere, doin' nothin'. He may even be a cliche. But, if only for one moment, he was the king.
Wow -- I wasn't expecting this. I've seen 'Saturday Night Fever' in numerous incarnations on TV, video, DVD and even theatrical revivals, and it simply has never looked as good as it does on this Blu-ray. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1) is really superb -- it doesn't completely transcend the film's soft-focus, '70s origins, but damn if Paramount hasn't done a marvelous job restoring this one to newfound glory.
Okay, 'Saturday Night Fever' totally looks like a '70s flick. Diffusion filters are used all over the place, softening light sources and dulling colors. There is also some film grain. But the source is a near-revelation compared to previous video versions. The print is clean, with no dirt or blemishes, and what grain there is is natural and consistent. Colors are as vivid as a disco ball, with flush reds and blues that remain surprisingly stable and free of noise or over-saturation. I was also impressed by the fine detail -- despite all the soft lighting, there is great depth to the picture. Even shadow delineation is superior. Alas, there is some edge enhancement employed to compensate for the softness, which is a shame, though I didn't find it too intrusive. Aside from that nitpick, I really must commend Paramount on a job well done.
Paramount has remixed 'Saturday Night Fever' in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). It ranks with the video as an impressive upgrade -- a 1977 film really should not sound as slick as this.
The biggest beneficiary of the remaster is the music. All of the Bee Gees tunes sparkle -- this is akin to the better 5.1 music remixes I've heard on high-end audio formats. The great tunes now have heft and depth, with punchy low bass and clear highs (perfect for all those falsettos). And, thankfully, the surrounds aren't overused on the music to gimmicky effects.
Unfortunately, the rest of the mix can't quite compare to the music, but it's still strong for a '70s film. There is some flatness to dynamic range, and low bass doesn't pump like it does with the music. Dialogue can have that canned quality of bad '70s ADR, but it's generally intelligible. Surrounds are sometimes active with a decent level of atmosphere and sporadic discrete effects. True, this remix doesn't totally compensate for the dated aspects of the original source, but it delivers where it counts -- the music.
Paramount previously released 'Saturday Night Fever' as a special edition DVD, and it was an OK set. There was a good audio commentary with director John Badham, some deleted scenes, and a retrospective special that originally aired on VH-1 (and included the participation of John Travolta). Paramount has now created a new 30th Anniversary Edition for Blu-ray and DVD, which retains all of the extras, sans the VH-1 special, and includes newly-produced featurettes. The result is a slightly improved package, though the lack of a fresh interview with Travolta hurts. (All video material is presented in full 1080 video.)
- Audio Commentary - Director John Badham provides a solo commentary that balances nicely with the retrospective documentary. On a low-budget film with few expectations, Badham and his often beleaguered cast and crew showed great ingenuity in covering up the cracks, stringing up aluminum foil to spruce up the Odyssey 2001 and shooting around New York traffic. And 'Fever's pop masterstroke would prove to be a fortuitous accident: the Bee Gees songs were a last-minute choice because they were so cheap! Badham also offers the best insight on casting Travolta and what he brought to the film, both as an actor and a dancer.
- Documentary (HD, 75 minutes) - Called "Catching the Fever," this is a hefty retrospective doc broken up into over a half-dozen little parts. The participants assembled are quite extensive -- interviewed are Badham, stars Donna Pescow, Karen Lynn-Gorney, Barry Miller and Martin Shakar, producer Robert Stigwood, and Bee Gee Barry Gibb (again, only Travolta is missing). There isn't much behind-the-scenes footage, but just about every important aspect of the 'Saturday Night Fever' phenomenon is covered. Most amusing is the look back at disco fashion, as well as a rather overdone "dance instructional" featurette. Snooty Travolta aside, I learned just about everything I wanted to about the film in "Catching the Fever."
The documentary segments are: "A 30-Year Legacy (15 minutes), "Making Soundtrack History" (12 minutes), "Platforms and Polyester" (10 minutes), "Deejays and Disco" (10 minutes), "Spotlight on Travolta" (4 minutes), "Back to Bay Ridge" (9 minutes), "Dance like Travolta with John Cassese" (10 minutes) and "Fever Challenge" (4 minutes).
- Trivia Track - Next we have "'70s Discopedia," a pop-up track that is a lot of fun. The graphics are simple but cute, and the facts focused more on the disco era than the same old production tidbits we learned in the featurettes. I enjoy pop-ups that are breezy like this one, so it's worth a watch for fans of the film, and nostalgia buffs.
- Deleted Scenes (HD) - Finally, Badham offers optional commentary on three scenes. All are dialogue exchanges and I didn't find them particularly noteworthy. (My only disappointment with this disc? The lack of any of the "PG rated" footage that was used for a 1978 re-release of the film. It was quite funny to see the film butchered, and including this material as a supplement would have been a nice addition for completists.)
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'Saturday Night Fever' is a modern classic, and deservedly so. It transcends the "disco" tag to earn its place as a tough, gritty and important film, and ranks as one of the best American movies of the '70s. This Blu-ray is much better than I expected -- the video and audio excel, and I thoroughly enjoyed the extras. Yes, the lack of John Travolta's participation is a disappointment, but it's his loss. Run out and grab 'Saturday Night Fever' on Blu-ray today.