The Screening Room
THE STUDIO GATE
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
"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
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.
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © Paramount. All
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
Sound: Very Good
The clothes! The music! The hair!
Aspect Ratio (1.85:1)
Dolby TrueHD 5.1
BLU-RAY RELEASE DATE
May 5, 2009