Saturday Night Fever: 30th Anniversary Edition
September 28, 2007
Saturday Night Fever (1977) turns 30 this year and has become firmly entrenched as a popular culture icon. It is one of those rare films that tapped into the zeitgeist of its time, brought disco into the mainstream, transformed its star, John Travolta, into a big-time movie star, and has stood the test of time. The film has transcended the trappings that date it (the clothes, the hairstyles, etc.) while retaining its core: a gritty slice-of-life mixed with a bittersweet romance that is surprisingly emotionally affecting.
Tony Manero (Travolta) is a young man who works at a Brooklyn hardware store in Brooklyn during the day but at night he hangs out with his buddies at the local dance club, 2001 Odyssey. He hopes to win the club’s dance contest but needs to find the right partner. At first, he teams up with Annette (Pescow), a neighbourhood girl who has a crush on Tony but whom he tells flat out that she’s not his “dream girl.” That would be Stephanie (Gorney) whom Tony spots cutting a very impressive groove on the dance floor and later at the dance studio where he practices at.
Tony falls hard for her but she initially rebuffs his advances, interested only in dancing, getting out of Brooklyn, and living in Manhattan. Even though Tony is the king of his neighbourhood, he wants out too because he’s tired of living at home (arguing constantly with his father) and sees that his friends have no future – they are going to spend the rest of their lives in their neighbourhood. This is symbolized by the character of Bobby C (Miller), the dumb one of Tony’s gang who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and spends the film trying to figure out what he’s going to do about it. He tries asking for help but no one listens to him because they don’t take him seriously. Another factor in Tony’s decision to get out is his brother Frank’s (Shakar) decision to quit being a priest because of his loss of faith. Tony doesn’t feel like the loser of his family now that their “golden boy” has fallen from grace as it were.
Saturday Night Fever is beautifully photographed, especially the dance club scenes with the garish reds and vibrant, atmospheric lighting (Christmas lights and disco balls) that is epitomized in the sequence where Tony struts his stuff on the dance floor while everyone watches admiringly. Director John Badham frames Travolta in long shots so that his entire body is visible and as a result there is no question that he’s really doing all that incredible dancing. This scene shows how, in this film, he was the heir to the legacy of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Because Saturday Night Fever has been parodied many times over people forget what an amazing dancer Travolta was, but watching him cut loose to “You Should Be Dancing” is one of the best dance sequences ever put to film. The choreography is astounding and Travolta moves to the music perfectly. It is easy to see how this film transformed him into a cultural phenomenon. As his brother tells Tony, he’s exciting to watch. Truer words were never spoken.
The comradery between Tony and his buddies feels authentic. It really seems like they’ve been friends forever. They act like goofballs around each other but not to the point of caricature. It never feels false. This is exemplified in the scene where they go for burgers at White Castle with Stephanie and Double J (Pape) makes a joke about Tony eating like a dog. Double J begins barking loudly freaking out the employees and other customers but it is funny as opposed to being threatening.
People often forget how gritty the film is. If Martin Scorsese ever directed a dance movie this would be it. Tony and his gang are a tough bunch of guys who aren’t above taking on a rival gang who jumped one of their own. It’s a chaotic, messy fight reminiscent of a similar skirmish in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). In fact, it often feels like Tony and his buddies could exist in the same world only a few miles away.
Another true test of a film’s staying power is if the characters still resonate years after you first saw it. This special quality is very subjective. When enough years pass any film will inevitably viewed through the lens of nostalgia, representing a specific time and a place that doesn’t exist anymore except in our memories. This is the power of cinema – to capture a moment in time forever and allow you to revisit again and again like an old friend. Saturday Night Fever does this and that is why it has endured for 30 years and will continue to do so.
Fans of the movie who own the 25th Anniversary edition will want to hold onto it as the only extra from is carried over to this new one is the audio commentary by director John Badham. He talks about how thousands of Travolta fans would show up to any exterior scenes and disrupt filming, forcing the production to stop for the day. Badham mentions how the studio objected to the gritty tone and language in the film but he fought to keep it in. The director delivers decent if not sometimes dorky observations and recounts some fascinating anecdotes about filming.
The real centerpiece of the extras is an almost hour-long retrospective documentary called “Catching the Fever” that is broken down into five featurettes that you can watch separately or altogether. The grittiness of the script and the influence of Rebel Without A Cause (1955) are briefly discussed. The film’s memorable soundtrack and its importance to not just the film but pop culture are also examined. The Bee Gees talk about the genesis of the soundtrack and how it affected their careers. The film’s distinctive and dated polyester clothing is explored, taking us back to the fashions of the 1970s and how authentically it was represented. The disco phenomenon, its origins, appeal and legacy is covered as is the rise in popularity and influence of disc jockeys. Cast and crew pay tribute to Travolta and his performance in the film. Everyone speaks admiringly of him although he is conspicuously absent from these extras. Most of the main cast members (Cali, Gorney, Pape, and Pescow) contribute brand new interviews recalling their memories of making the film.
“Back to Bay Ridge” takes an entertaining look at the locations from the film today and compares them to the way they look now with Joseph Cali as our tour guide. He visits some of the stores and talks to current owners.
“Dance Like Travolta with John Cassese” features this dance doctor to the stars demonstrating how to do some of Travolta’s signature moves. He breaks them down into segments and dissects the moves for you to try in this enjoyable and informative extra.
“Fever Challenge!” is an amusing extra that tests your coordination by re-enacting the Bus Stop dance which Tony and his friends dance to “Night Fever” in the film.
Finally, there is “70’s Discopedia” which allows you to watch the film with trivia track subtitles that display random factoids.