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Paramount Home Video presents
"Dancing, it can't last forever."
DVD ReviewIs there a more fantastically iconic movie from the 1970s than Saturday Night Fever? As a cultural lodestone, it may eclipse even The Godfather, and its influence (over the short term, at least) may have been more extensive—music, television, fashion as well as films owe huge debts to this picture, though thirty years after the fact, some of the fashion choices especially seem a bit unfortunate. It's actually a pretty sturdily constructed and old-fashioned movie, and sometimes feels like the Brothers Gibb were simply substituted for Rodgers and Hart to produce a musical of the moment, about a boy who wants to dance.
This is unquestionably the movie that established John Travolta as an A-list movie star, and it was a serious bust-out role from a couple of seasons as Vinnie Barbarino—even more, though, it's a movie with a great sense not just of time but of place. The story could only take place in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn—Travolta plays Tony Manero, who is 19, lives with his parents, draws his paycheck at a local hardware store, but who only wants to hit the dance floor. (Well, that and get laid.) He is of course a spectacularly good dancer, and is most alive when he's out on the floor—he's a bit of a neighborhood Lothario, but you can see that he's a young man with big dreams, and loves the public attention and adoration when he's out there doing his steps. Inevitably, as in so many old-time movie musicals, there's going to be a dance contest, and a lot of the juice from the plot comes from that—Tony tosses aside Annette (Donna Pescow), the girl from the 'hood who everybody knows loves him, for the new girl in town, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), who has made that seemingly unchartered journey over the Brooklyn Bridge and into the wilds of Manhattan.
The sense of neighborhood is extraordinarily specific, and director John Badham emphasizes the provincial Brooklyn nabe with frequent shots across the river. (Looked at from our vantage point, these have a new poignancy, as just about every image of the Manhattan skyline in the movie focuses on downtown, and prominently features the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.) It's all so unbelievably '70s, down to the Farrah Fawcett poster up in Tony's room—as a hero, Tony is frequently inarticulate but always so endearing, if sometimes in a crude sort of way. Somewhat more mechanical are the stories of the characters that surround him, though. He runs with a crew of three other guys, and in truth it's hard to distinguish between them, as they've got no defining characteristics; also, Tony is the black sheep in his house, and the favored son, Frank Jr., rocks the very foundations of the family when he renounces his priestly vows, and leaves the Church and returns to civilian life.
But it's the emblematic disco score and the lithe moves that Travolta and friends display on the dance floor that will hook you. The baseline of Stayin' Alive is enough to transport you into the world of the movie, and it's kind of amazing how enduring it's been—any parent who took their child to see Madagascar probably had to go through the same conversation with their kids that I did, explaining why Daddy was laughing at the tight shot on the feet of an animated zebra as he saunters down the streets of New York. (He's a woman's man. No time to talk.) And there may not be a more readily recognizable costume in all of movie history than Travolta's white three-piece suit—it's truly on par with Dorothy's gingham dress and ruby slippers. The whole project holds up much better than you might anticipate—it's easy to come to this DVD and expect only to cherrypick the best bits, like the soundtrack, but it remains a worthy and specific portrait of a unique historical moment.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Too much of the transfer looks blotchy, with the reds especially—you can see the limitations from the jump, with the red title cards on a black screen (This can be endemic to movies of the period—Scarface, for instance, suffers from a lot of the same problems). This one isn't much of an improvement from previous releases of the title.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: Actually a very nice audio transfer, with a steady balance between dialogue, soundtrack, and ambient noise, and full-throated Bee Gees falsetto in all its feathered glory.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Dreamgirls
1 Feature/Episode commentary by John Badham
Catching the Fever (52m:39s) is a five-part retrospective documentary, featuring new interview footage with Badham, producer Robert Stigwood, executive producer Kevin McCormack, Robin and Barry Gibb, and many principal cast members, with the glaring exception of Travolta. It goes over the making of the film, starting with the New York Magazine piece by Nik Cohn that inspired it, up through its legacy—some redundancies here, but everybody on camera remembers the project fondly. Joseph Cali, who plays Joey, one of Tony's pals, takes us Back to Bay Ridge (9m:01s), to check out what's happened to the neighborhood and to many of the film's locations—you too can grab a slice where Tony Manero did!
Lace 'em up for the dance portion of the extras package. The Dance Doctor To The Stars is our host for Dance Like Travolta With John Cassese (9m:50s), in which he and a partner help us re-create the More Than a Woman dance sequence from the climactic contest. (White suit not included.) Then you can take the Fever Challenge (4m:00s), an Arthur Murray-style tutorial in some of Tony's finest solo moves. There's a single trailer, for Dreamgirls, under the Previews menu heading. 70s Discopedia is a popup text track which plays over the movie, with little trivia tidbits about the movie and fun facts about the period—it's probably not worth your while to watch the movie a second time simply for this. Also, a special bit of praise for the package design, with the DVD itself done up like a mirror ball, and a translucent sleeve that slips over for the full effect.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsWhether you're a mother or whether you're a brother, you've got to love lots of Saturday Night Fever, and even if it's only in the most ironic and sarcastic way, it's going to get your feet moving. The film holds up really well as a coming-of-age piece; if you already own one of the several previous DVD releases of the title, though, trading up to this one may not be absolutely necessary.
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