When Saturday Night Fever was released in December of 1977, it had a very good chance of success since all of the year’s biggest films (Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Smokey and the Bandit) had already been released. As such, it turned out to also be one of the year’s largest box office draws, slotting itself behind those three films as one of the top grossers of the year. It not only rode the cultural wave of disco music and fashion, but in truth, defined it forever. For generations, many wrote it off as nothing more than a simplistic disco movie, particularly due to the films that came in its wake, including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Apple—both of which pale in comparison to the quality of Saturday Night Fever. Thankfully, it fares much better today as younger audiences continue to discover it, realizing what a well-crafted piece of work it is.
Despite being re-released to theaters and airing on TV in more PG-friendly versions, Saturday Night Fever is anything but a lighthearted tale about a teenager from Brooklyn who spends his evenings at the 2001 Odyssey nightclub, dancing the night away with his buddies while being cheered on by the eager crowds gathered around him. It’s certainly that on the surface, but the theme of the film is having to realize one’s own potential in an environment that doesn’t fully appreciate it, and having to grow up to do it. In that sense, it’s one of the most realistic portrayals of an American teenager. The way that Tony and his friends interact with each other, as well as the everyday drama in Tony’s family life, is played as nothing more than normalcy, giving it a strong authenticity. John Travolta gives one of his finest performances as a young guy who is simultaneously charming and repulsive. You don’t necessarily always connect with him because he says rude things, he makes mistakes, and he’s terrible to some of the people around him, especially women. Because of this, he feels genuine. Moments throughout his story are often uncomfortable, bordering on disturbing, and we grow up with him as he goes through them.
Although Saturday Night Fever has always been a mainstay in pop culture, it’s also been seen in a variety of forms over the years, confusing many who didn’t understand the impact that the film’s intended content and tone actually had. According to director John Badham, the film was cut by about four minutes just prior to its premiere in fear of exceeding a two-hour running time. Some of those four minutes have shown up in various TV airings, or been featured as deleted scenes. However, for the Director’s Cut, portions of these moments have been dropped back in. They include a moment of solace for Tony early on when he visits the Brooklyn Bridge alone for contemplation (which ties into his scene with Stephanie at the same bridge later on), Tony’s father receiving a telegram informing him that he’s been newly-employed (the flip side of the earlier scene in which Tony tells his father about the raise he received), and an additional moment when Tony arrives at Stephanie’s apartment at the end of the film, begging her to buzz him into the building. Those missing four minutes aren’t all that necessary as nothing really feels missing, but they also manage not to interrupt the flow and feel a part of the overall fabric.
Regardless of which version one chooses to watch, Saturday Night Fever remains a high point in both filmmaking and mainstream, pop culture-inhabited cinema.
Saturday Night Fever was shot by director of photography Ralf D. Bode on 35 mm film with Arriflex 35 IIC and Panavision Panaflex cameras and Panavision Super Speed and Ultra Speed lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Paramount debuts the theatrical version of the film on Ultra HD from a 4K Digital Intermediate created from the original camera negative, graded for High Dynamic Range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available). While the presentation shows promise once the opening titles conclude, this new Ultra HD is very problematic, to say the least. Many casual viewers may not notice anything out of the oridinary initially, but those who are familiar with the film and have more discerning eyes will notice how uneven the grain is. Some shots and entire scenes are more natural and refined, while others appear smeared and inorganic. Grain even freezes and appears chunky in spots. Not only that, but the bit rate is severely lacking, dropping into the lower teens occasionally, and rarely rising into the upper 90s. It’s absolutely frustrating because there’s so much improvement over the previous Blu-ray release, with particular regards to clarity, sharpness, and detail. The HDR grades add further depth to the color palette with mostly deep blacks and richer hues, especially during the nightclub scenes which offer a variety of colors. Transitions are a little drab in terms of color, and minor banding and haloing are evident, but many portions of this presentation are quite good, great even. But because Paramount’s quality control didn’t give this title more attention, it’s an unsatisfactory experience. A more guided hand when it comes to grain management and encoding was needed to make this presentation truly work.
(It’s also annoying that Paramount went to the trouble of assembling a Director’s Cut of the film just a few years ago, but can’t be bothered to include it on an Ultra HD disc of its own, relegating it to a standard Blu-ray disc for this release.)
The main audio option is English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD with subtitle options in English and English SDH. Although the previous Director’s Cut Blu-ray also features a Dolby TrueHD track, this is a different experience altogether. It’s not as egregiously poor as its video counterpart, but it too has its share of issues. The center speaker has been turned way down while the overall volume of the entire track is below standard levels, requiring an instant volume adjustment. The previous track soared when it came to music, but this track lacks that same kind of power, and feels timid by comparison. Dialogue exchanges are fine, but the majority of the track is unsatisfactory. Having the original theatrical audio, which also was adjusted during the film’s initial home video life, would have been a decent trade-off, but it too is absent. Additional audio options include French, German, Japanese, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, and English Descriptive Audio. Additional subtitle options include Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Latin American), and Swedish.
The theatrical version of Saturday Night Fever on Ultra HD sits in a black amaray case alongside a 1080p Blu-ray of the Director’s Cut (the same disc as the previous release) and a paper insert with a Digital Copy code. Everything is housed in a slipcover featuring new artwork. The following extras are included, all in HD:
For the extras, nearly everything has been carried over from previous releases, including an audio commentary with director John Badham for the theatrical version only, a 70s Discopedia on-screen trivia track, the Catching the Fever documentary in five parts, the Back to Bay Ridge locations featurette, the Dance Like John Travolta tutorial, the Fever Challenge! interactive tutorial, and a deleted scene wherein Tony drops Stephanie off at her apartment and they share a brief but unsatisfactory kiss. None of the film’s trailers or TV spots have been included, and missing from the 25th Anniversary DVD release is the Highlights from VH1’s Behind the Music special. It’s not a huge loss because despite the program containing some great interviews and behind the scenes footage, it lifts out any references, either musically or during the interviews, to The Bee Gees. It also tends to recycle the same songs over and over again and, despite the material, becomes tedious. Having the original version would have been preferable. It also would have been nice to have had a new featurette or commentary dedicated to the Director’s Cut since none of the extras even refer to it. Also missing in action are the PG-rated and TV versions of the film, along with several notable deleted scenes that were re-instituted into the latter, including a humorous moment of Tony dancing the robot to Disco Duck and an extended version of the Night Fever dancing montage, among others.
Saturday Night Fever is a powerful film that’s just as potent as it was in 1977 because its themes still resonate, regardless of age or background, but Paramount’s handling of the film’s 45-Year Anniversary 4K Ultra HD release is severely disappointing. Perhaps for its 50th anniversary, we’ll see a better release that not only improves upon the A/V quality, but offers a better package overall with everything previously mentioned and more. One can hope.
– Tim Salmons
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Saturday Night Fever: 45-Year Anniversary (4K UHD Review)