Saturday Night Fever
October 8th, 2007
While Paramount's latest DVD for their 1977 monster hit "Saturday Night Fever" is full of brand-new special features, the omission of John Travolta in any of the commentaries or documentaries is a major shadow that the new disc cannot get out from.
If you were born after 1977, it’s hard to gauge the impact “Saturday Night Fever” had on the culture of the day. Disco didn’t have the same holding power on the public that “Star Wars” (the other major cultural landmark of the year) had. You could not escape Disco Fever in the winter of 1977, the Bee Gees were everywhere, John Travolta became an overnight sensation, and the film was so in demand from theatre owners that it became one of the few in history to ever have two versions (a restricted and a general ages version) in theatres at the same time. Soon thereafter, disco died, Travolta went on to spearhead a 50s revival (with “Grease”) and a cowboy renaissance (with “Urban Cowboy”) before finding his own career dead, and most of the cast and crew fell into semi-obscurity.
Now, Travolta is back on another career high, and presumably far too busy with mundane things like sitting down for half an hour and speaking about the film and the character that helped give him that career. In a number of the featurettes, we are continually told how wonderful and generous a man the twice Oscar-nominated actor is. Too bad those who have supported his career for thirty years couldn’t bear witness themselves.
Like many a pop cultural phenomena, the actual film itself wasn’t all that good to begin with, and remains of interest solely because it is a perfect snapshot of a very specific time and place. The music, the clothes, the cars, the make-up, the attitude... there is nothing which says “This is what Big City America was like in 1977” better than this movie. “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters” were been bigger hits, but neither are the living breathing window into the past like “Saturday Night Fever.” But watching the film again after thirty years is a reminder of the power a gigantic movie screen and a commanding sound system can have over a movie. In 1977, in a theatre equipped with a 50 foot screen and a then-new Dolby Stereo System, audiences could be whipped into a collective excitement when they were totally enveloped by the massive images of the flashing dance floor and the bombastic Bee Gees beats. On the average home entertainment systems of 2007, however, much of the sizzle will be lost. The soundtrack, now remixed into the industry-standard 5.1 matrix, sounds good with standard left/right speakers, but one really will feel like dancing when one experiences the timeless Bee Gees songs with a proper home stereo system. The images, enhanced for 16:9 televisions, looks as good as a film shot on standard film stock of the day and processed by second-tier print developer Movielab (whose other clients included such top-shelf productions such as “Foxy Brown” and “Future-Kill”) can look.
Most of the bonus features included are new to this edition, although the most interesting one, a “Discopedia” which runs during the film with factoids about the film and its lasting cultural impact, would have been best suited for the late 90s, during the heyday of VH-1’s Pop-Up Video. We get many of the supporting cast members and director John Badham talking about the legacy of the movie (not that the film really helped any of them have a career even remotely mirroring Mr. Travolta’s), what the soundtrack meant to the world at the time (and it’s good to hear the impact directly from Robin and Barry Gibb), the ridiculousness of the costumes and other aspects of the film, including comments from Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, who worked on the film as a location executive while trying to get his now-iconic company started. (Absolutely worthless is the Dance Like Travolta segment featuring a self-stylized “Dance Doctor” who had nothing whatsoever to do with the movie.)
“Saturday Night Fever” is one of those movies that everyone has to experience once in their lives, just so they can be in the know should they ever find themselves involved in a conversation about John Travolta and his career, or if one is an amateur anthropologist and wants to compare and contrast the lives of teenagers thirty years ago to those today. The film reminds us that the music and the clothes might change, but the youth still need to find a way to have fun on the weekends no matter what is going on in the world around them. Watch the film, skip most of the extras and laugh at how silly we all were back then.
My rating: C