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Blu-ray Review: Saturday Night Fever: 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut

May 10, 2017

By John Corrado

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, director John Badham’s iconic 1977 classic Saturday Night Fever has now gotten a beautifully restored new Blu-ray edition, which includes both the theatrical version and the slightly longer director’s cut of the film.

Tony Manero (John Travolta) is a working class Italian-American teenager in Brooklyn, who works part time at a paint store during the week, and essentially lives for Saturday night when he can hang out with his buddies at the 2001 Odyssey disco club, and find what he sees as his rightful place as king of the dance floor.

The club provides an escape from Tony’s troubled home life, where his parents (Val Bisoglio and Julie Bovasso) see him as a sort of failure, especially compared to his older brother (Martin Shakar) who moved out and became a priest.  But when he starts falling for Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a career girl whom he is mentoring at the dance studio and has higher ambitions than any of his friends, Tony becomes torn between his life of drifting and the potential for a better future.

Even if you have never seen Saturday Night Fever, you are likely familiar with the often imitated opening scene where John Travolta struts down the street to “Stayin’ Alive,” which has itself become a ubiquitous musical cue in literally everything.  But this also means that the film’s reputation somewhat precedes it, and Saturday Night Fever is actually a darker and grittier movie than many people seem to remember or give it credit for.  Although some of the racist, sexist and homophobic comments would likely never make it into a studio picture now, these are precisely the same elements that make the film feel grounded and believable, allowing it to work as a warts and all encapsulation of its time.

The incredible dancing and unforgettable soundtrack are still a blast to watch, reenergizing disco when the fad was already reaching its natural end, but Saturday Night Fever remains equally compelling for its exploration of self-destructive masculinity.  The film provides both an entertaining time capsule of the disco era, and also a compelling portrait of restless young men who are on the brink and searching for something more, that captures the uncertainty and rebellion of the 1970s as a whole.  True to form for the decade, the characters walk around puffing their chests, with their tough guy attitudes juxtaposed by their flamboyant fashion choices of white suits, platform shoes, loud shirts and coiffed hair.

John Travolta carries the film in one of his best performances, not only featuring perhaps the most iconic dance scenes of his career, but also delving deep into the restlessness and simmering anger underneath his character.  The actor went on to receive an Oscar nomination for the role, elevating him into an even higher level of stardom that continued with Grease in 1978.  The film also revitalized the career of the Bee Gees, who provided the songs for the Grammy-winning soundtrack, which became one of the highest selling soundtracks of all time.

The film was so successful that it received a needlessly censored cut a year later so families could go see it, with more than a hundred changes having to be made to reduce the rating from R to PG, and much of the story’s integrity lost in the process.  The film also got the unnecessary and highly inferior sequel Staying Alive in 1983, which saw John Travolta reprise his role and was actually directed by Sylvester Stallone.  It also has the unique distinction of being at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.  But these curveballs to its legacy still haven’t curtailed the lasting impact of the original Saturday Night Fever.

The film is edgier than anything that would likely be put out now aimed at teenaged audiences, but the gritty realism that fuels the need for its characters search for a escapism is a big part of the film’s lasting resonance.  The film also explores themes of innocence lost, both in the casual sexual encounters which lead to some real consequences, and also in the poignant moments when Tony’s brother returns home and tells him that he is quitting the priesthood, much to the dismay of their parents.  He wants to reclaim his own life, not follow the path that his parents envisioned for him since he was young.

“Fuck the future,” Tony tells his boss (Sam Coppola) early in the film, to which the man responds “you can’t fuck the future, the future fucks you.  It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain’t planned for it.”  These lines stood out most to me when watching Saturday Night Fever again, a perfectly scripted dialogue exchange that crystallizes the story’s deeper themes.  The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which becomes the location of the shocking climax, offers a compelling visual metaphor in the film.  The bridge comes to symbolize a gateway out of their rough Brooklyn neighbourhood, if they can reach the point in their lives of actually being able to cross it.

Forty years later, Saturday Night Fever remains a cultural touchstone, a film that instantly calls to mind the era when it was released, but also still holds up as both an emotionally resonant character study of working class malaise and as an incredibly entertaining dance movie.  It’s the sort of film that perfectly meshes its iconic imagery and soundtrack with compellingly flawed characters, a work that continues to be rewarding regardless of whether you are revisiting it or seeing it for the first time.

The Blu-ray also includes commentary by John Badham, a pop-up trivia track, a deleted scene, the five part feature Catching the Fever, as well as the separate featurettes Back to Bay Ridge, which sees actor Joseph Cali revisiting the filming locations, and Dance Like Travolta With John Cassese, which offers a lesson in how to perform the film’s climactic dance, and the Fever Challenge! dance game.  These are the exact same bonus features transferred over from the 30th anniversary edition, so the main draw of this release really is the director’s cut, and the attractive new restoration.

Saturday Night Fever is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.  The theatrical version is 118 minutes and the director’s cut is 122 minutes, both are rated R.

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