DVD Review: Saturday Night Fever
By Glenn Abel
The year was 1977, and the word on the street was Disco
Sucks. Rock DJs incited listeners to burn their Village People records. Punk,
the next big thing, made its Atlantic crossing. Polyester was wearing thin.
Soundtrack supervisor Bill Oakes found himself in heavy L.A. traffic, staring at a Die Disco Die bumper sticker. In his car were the master tapes for a new dance movie. The soundtrack included two versions of "Disco Duck" and original songs from a 1960s rock band trying to update its act. Things did not look good.
That view was shared by the suits at Paramount, who pondered the release of a disco film featuring a young sitcom star and a cast of unknowns. The script included a gang rape; the main characters spouted racial slurs like seasoned bigots.
"The creative execs thought, 'Well, this is terrible; it's a vulgar little movie,'" recalls the film's director, John Badham. "Nobody expected it to do anything."
Now, 25 years later, Paramount celebrates the DVD resurrection of "Saturday Night Fever," the blockbuster whose influence on music, fashion and filmmaking continues into the new century.
None of this surprises John Travolta, whose iconic role as white-suited dance king Tony Manero made him a superstar. "It (captured) pop culture then and pop culture now," says Travolta, clearly still proud of his work in the film.
Paramount has released "Saturday Night Fever" in a remastered widescreen version, with audio remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 (retail $24.99). "Fever" looks OK, despite the MOR haze that afflicts many films of its day. There are no significant signs of wear. Much of the action takes place in a nightclub, with plenty of grain mixed in with the boozy soft reds. Flesh tones and nighttime contrasts are passable.
The soundtrack, featuring the now-classic quintet of Bee Gees songs, has a loud-and-proud jukebox feel, anchored by the 5.1.'s big subwoofer bottom. The audio tightens up for center-channel dialogue, which is clear and natural. Rear speakers emit the rattle and hum of Brooklyn.
The soft video and big-beat audio merge into a funky nostalgic vibe. Check out the transcendent "Night Fever" number, in which a club full of bickering knuckleheads somehow comes together, line-dancing their way to a higher plane. Or the scene in which Travolta's narcissistic paint salesman takes over the dance floor. Magic moments that showcase the film's deft mix of drama and dance.
DVD extras are limited, but they should satisfy most viewers' curiosity. A segment of VH1's "Behind the Music" profiles the troubled production and its eventual critical and commercial triumph. A handful of short deleted scenes seem good enough to be in the film. Director Badham handles the audio commentary solo (Travolta does his talking in the VH1 piece).
Badham, who sounds like one of those homespun NPR personalities, never lacks for something interesting to say. He's always primed with a production anecdote or an update on one of the young performers' careers. The director is tough on some of his own creative decisions made on tight deadline.
He came to the project with only one film to his credit, replacing director John Avildsen just weeks before production began. Travolta and Avildsen clashed over the film's tone, with the director disliking the dark script and envisioning a crowd pleaser similar to his last project, "Rocky."
Avildsen's "Saturday Night Fever" was "not the movie I'd signed to do," Travolta says. Avildsen got the sack just as he received word of his Oscar nom for "Rocky."
Exec producer Kevin McCormick tells of the first filming day, in which "Welcome Back, Kotter" fans learned Travolta was shooting on the streets of Brooklyn. "We had absolutely no preparation for the fact that John was a phenomenon," McCormick says. Shooting was halted halfway through the day as the producers worked on ways to escape the fans.
Shooting slowed again as Travolta left for California when word came that his older girlfriend, actress Diana Hyland, was about to die of cancer. A double worked some of the shots in Travolta's famous opening sidewalk stroll, though the star and Badham disagree on how much was fudged. Hyland died in Travolta's arms, and he finished the film in great pain.
Badham tells how he cast dancers who fit the working-class characters. Broadway pros were passed over in favor of "the people who never got picked." Hundreds auditioned for the role of Travolta's love interest. Actress-dancer Karen Lynn Gorney got the job at the last moment after a chance cab ride with the producer's nephew.
More turmoil came in postproduction. Travolta was "in shock" after he saw the rough cut, in which his solo dance number was framed in close-up instead of showing the moves he'd worked on for nine months. (The DVD has some great clips of a long-haired Travolta learning his steps.) Producer Robert Stigwood gave his angry star the authority to cut the scene as he liked, infuriating Badham and the editor.
Stigwood intervened again to keep the script's controversial rape scene in the film, which Badham felt was "over the limit." The director says the production was "very lucky" to have tough and talented actress Donna Pescow playing the drunken victim.
The emotional final Bee Gees number, "How Deep Is Your Love," wasn't written for the film but was offered when Badham needed a number for the ambivalent ending. The director says the Bee Gees claim to have never read the script, marveling at how closely their lyrics mirrored the story.
Paramount also has released the "Fever" sequel, "Staying Alive" (1983), but most admirers of the original know that Travolta's gritty "Urban Cowboy" (1980) was the true successor. It too has been remastered in widescreen and remixed into 5.1 (both DVDs retail for $24.99).
"Cowboy" has aged well, with the video serving up handsome renderings of its bar-top browns and Texas Tea blacks. The pop country soundtrack sounds great, with the bass tight and focused.
Extra features are scarce on "Cowboy," but it's well worth checking out the clips of Travolta and co-star Debra Winger practicing their sexiest moves on the mechanical bull. Other clips show Travolta practicing his Texas Two-Step, with an unexpected dash of Chaplin mixed in with all that heifer dust.
Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter
Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter
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