The Screening Room
saturday night fever
John Travolta was every kid's modern hero back in the 1970s. As Vinnie Babarino, he was the cool class clown who had a heart of gold. He always had a good comeback when somebody tried to insult him. My friends and I would run over the Vinnie's hilarious lines the next time we saw each other. Vinnie, or Travolta, was our older television brother.

"Saturday Night Fever" is now available on Blu-ray.

By 1977, "Kotter" was getting stale and you could tell (at least from my memory) that Travolta was about to bolt. Something bigger was on the horizon for him, and it was a movie called "Saturday Night Fever." "Kotter" was never a great show. Perhaps adolescence and the time period made it seem much funnier than it really was. When Travolta left the show, for what would soon turn out to be a lucrative career in movies, the show sank. Our television brother had grown up and moved out of the house.  

"Saturday Night Fever" was one of the seminal films of the 1970s. Gaudy as the polyester worn by the film's disco divas and disco ducks, the film captured a silly and yet fun time. As much as disco and the '70s era were parodied by the end of that decade, there is no denying how influential this film and Travolta were at the time. It seemed like there was no escaping the now famous Travolta pose, or the disco moves, or the fact you heard the film's soundtrack on the radio constantly. Just as "Star Wars" had done earlier that year, a film and its soundtrack caught the public's imagination.

"Fever" is as much of a rite of passage film as "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955), or "The Graduate" (1967), or "American Graffiti" (1973) before it. Travolta's character of Tony Manero was someone who many young adults could identify with. He had family issues at home and issues with women. He and his buddies got into trouble. He cursed like a sailor and wanted to get high not only on drugs and booze, but high off dancing on the dance floor. Dancing was an escape for Manero and his pals.

Travolta is the core of this film. Much has been made over the years about the soundtrack (which I'll get to later) and the polyester clothing. But Travolta is Tony Manero. It's hard to believe that he was only 24 years-old when he played the part. This film showed that Travolta was indeed a very good actor. His interaction with the cast is amazing. One just doesn't feel that they're watching a performance. They feel like they're one of Travolta's on-screen comrades.

The cast is excellent, very much in tune with the film's working class world. Everyone carries their New York mannerisms and accents with pride. Films in the 1970s seemed to capture the best and worst of New York's gritty side, and "Fever" is no exception. Badham's direction is very good and he keeps the film flowing. The film is very "R-rated" with foul language and sexual situations. The characters spoke the way people their age would speak. My friends, those who were allowed to see the "R-rated" version, would indulge themselves in talking about the "back seat" scenes with the chicks. This was pretty heady material for kids our age, but audiences, almost no matter what their age, seemed to get into "Fever." (A "PG" version was released later in the decade).

The film's popularity was rampant. My parents, who were very conservative back then, signed up for disco dancing lessons at a local junior college. I joined them one night and can remember seeing hundreds of people crowded into an auditorium to dance like Travolta. It was fun and goofy at the same time. I was too young to understand much of anything about the reality of disco and nightclubs. Studio 54, cocaine, bawdy nights of sex, and disco being very popular in underground gay clubs were entirely off my radar. My friends, who seemed more mature than me, didn't know about the "seedy" underworld of disco, either. They got their kicks off of seeing those nasty scenes in "Fever," and that was it.

Disco dancing and the music are, of course, the other major highlight of "Fever." The Bee Gees forever solidified themselves in disco history with their songs in the soundtrack. The group had been around for years before the film was made. But they really took off with the inclusion of their songs in "Fever." The bass lines and catchy beats were positively addictive. "Night Fever," "Stayin' Alive" and "How Deep Is Your Love" were played on the radio ad nauseam, and people couldn't get enough of Barry Gibb's falsetto. For about two years after "Fever" hit screens, the Bee Gees were unstoppable. The soundtrack sold so many copies that it was unusual not to find a copy in a friend's record collection.

Then disco suddenly sucked, and the Bee Gees were no longer cool. Travolta was now seen as a relic of the '70s. The "Fever" had been broken. After hearing the songs over and over again, people got tired of it all. The fashion, like most of the '70s garb, was silly. For much of the 1980s and the early 1990s, disco, Travolta and the Bee Gees were ancient history.

Here we are thirty years later and looking back fondly at "Saturday Night Fever," or at least looking at it with rose colored glasses. The late Gene Siskel apparently loved the film and bought the famous suit worn by Travolta. I've never been a true fan of the film, even when I finally sat down and watched the "R" version. Something about the gritty atmosphere (very well captured) and me perhaps not relating to polyester. Something about the film, in general, never really caught on with me and I couldn't understand its appeal. Strangely enough, I related better to "The Graduate" and "American Graffiti," and even "Grease" more than I did with "Saturday Night Fever." But upon viewing it again, and going through the excellent special features, I can see why people gravitated towards the film. The story of fighting and competing for what you want is universal.

One of the highlights for me was seeing the surviving Gibb brothers, Barry and Robin, talk about the surprising success of their music from the film. Barry, whom it can be easy to parody his disco threads, that falsetto and perfect hair, is charming to listen to. He's now in his 60s and doesn't look like the towering guy with the really high singing voice I remember from my youth. The Bee Gees, though I'm not a huge fan of all of their music, were and are accomplished musicians and singers. They managed to produce a collection of classic songs that are still played to this day. I'm sure that even the most hardened rockers can appreciate the infectious groove of "Stayin' Alive."

Travolta, of course, went through a very dry period in which almost every film he made was a flop. "Two of A Kind" (1983), the awful sequel to "Fever," "Staying Alive" (also 1983), and "Perfect" (1985) put him into the back of audience's minds. He was no longer cool and fell from grace. He became famous, in a way, of making trendy films that weren't trendy or very well liked. He made the horrifically popular "Look Who's Talking" (1989) and its sequels, then came back major in "Pulp Fiction" (1994). Now it seems that Travolta is in nearly every other movie made today. He commands a very tidy salary, even if the film flops. Audiences seem to still enjoy the kid from New Jersey who grew up to reinvent himself.

The Blu-ray brings out the soft filtered cinematography. The picture isn't meant to be super sharp and it looks natural. Colors are vibrant enough to evolve the disco era. This is a nice Blu-ray presentation.

The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is probably the best this film has sounded in years. The dialogue, true to some movies made during the '70s, gets distorted when the actors talk loud. With all the advanced recording techniques in that era (just listen to an LP from the 1970s), movie audio on dialogue could be very crude. That shouldn't distract viewers from enjoying the film. The music is nicely presented, though lacks in fidelity. Compared to the DVD, this soundtrack has higher quality.

After 30 years, the "Fever" is high.  
Bill Kallay

Special thanks to Click Communications

Photos: Paramount. All rights reserved.
Blu-ray Quick Glimpse


Vintage time capsule of fun era

Director: John Badham  

Cast: John Travolta, Donna Pescow, Karen Gorney

"Making of," vintage footage and more


Picture: Excellent
Sound: Very Good

The clothes! The music! The hair!

Aspect Ratio (1.85:1)

Dolby TrueHD 5.1

May 5, 2009
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