Blu-ray Reviews: John Travolta Double-Feature-- Saturday Night Fever (1977); Grease (1978)

Now Dancing Their Way to Blu-ray

An Introduction

A funny thing happened while reviewing Travolta... or rather the two newest Blu-rays from Paramount Home Entertainment that captured John Travolta right at that moment his career skyrocketed from popular Welcome Back Kotter TV actor to full-fledged movie star.

For, the last time I'd seen Grease and Saturday Night Fever was as a budding film buff-- easily over a decade ago-- and honestly at the time not really getting why everyone considered the two films to be so iconic and masterful. In my eyes they didn't compare to the thematically or tonally similar superior works that had come before them like American Graffiti or Rebel Without a Cause.

Sure, Grease was fun and I knew all the lyrics-- especially around its 20th anniversary when the remix of songs made its way to the top of radio charts once again. And yes, granted, Travolta's turn in Saturday Night Fever was brave and dark enough to earn him an Academy Award nomination and to this day, I'm amazed he took on such a risk but nonetheless, I never jumped on the bandwagon of either movie.

When tapped to review the films now on Blu-ray this month from Paramount Home Entertainment, I went in eagerly, anxious to evaluate with a keener critical eye, a better sense of their history, and the filmmaking process. And in doing so--although I must confess I always try to remain completely objective-- I assumed that this time around I would more than likely understand why Saturday Night Fever is considered to be a masterpiece and would end up raving about that one while still probably end up mixed on the colorful Grease. The results however took me completely by surprise as my hypothesis was smashed to pieces when I took in the works in chronological order starting with Fever.

But before I launch into the reviews-- first a little background courtesy of the plethora of extras found on both discs:

Having caught the attention of producer Robert Stigwood during a Broadway audition for Jesus Christ Superstar, Stigwood found in Travolta a man he knew could become the next cinematic sensation. And when he later signed him to a three-picture deal, Travolta revitalized dance films for good with the astronomical amount that would follow over the course of the next decade including Footloose, Urban Cowboy, Flashdance, Fame, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Shag: The Movie, Staying Alive, Grease 2, Dirty Dancing and more (many of which were Paramount titles).

Extremely different than classic musicals, the dance pictures were never afraid to shy away from the most taboo of subject matter which was evident for Travolta first with director John Badham's gritty 1977 work Saturday Night Fever.

Going for the flip-side or venturing into the daylight much more than the extended night shoots of Fever-- one year later, Travolta reunited with his Boy in the Plastic Bubble director Randal Kleiser for the '50s parody Grease that was based on the popular Broadway musical in which Travolta had played a minor character years earlier.

More musical than a dance film-- Grease-- which still got away with a ridiculous amount of double entendre for a PG rated work-- relied more on the traditional musical aspect than strictly going for a dance approach (despite Fever's whopping soundtrack by The Bee Gees). Although once you watch the two works back to back you realize just how little dancing there actually is in Fever in the scheme of things and how much Grease's stars set out to break their necks in an attempt to entertain.

However, while studios are always pleased when a work under their banner does well-- absolutely nobody from the executives at Paramount to the cast and crew involved realized that these two signature films would not only become nearly synonymous with late '70s filmmaking (and further solidify Paramount as the studio to beat in the blockbuster '80s), instantly identifiable in every country around the globe, help announce that a brand new dark haired cinematic star was born, but far more importantly become works that would live on three decades after their initial release in theatres.

Saturday Night Fever:
30th Anniversary

Special Collector's Edition


After reading the now infamously “fictitious” nonfiction New York Magazine article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” by British journalist Nik Cohn, producer Robert Stigwood knew he'd at last found a star vehicle for the young Travolta and quickly purchased the rights from Cohn.

Although at the time, it was taken as gospel truth, the author has now admitted that he fabricated the piece with his “novelist's imagination,” as quoted by Nigel Andrews in Travolta: The Life (56) by substituting the individuals he was familiar with back in London for the New Yorkers he saw in the disco clubs.

However, back in the '70s and shortly after its publication led to an immediate reaction from those who'd be involved in the film's production, screenwriter Norman Wexler approached the material with a bold, no-holds-barred, lean and mean take on the dead-end lives of young Brooklyn inhabitants. Although it may in fact echo Rebel Without a Cause as far as its interviewed cast is concerned, honestly to me, it feels like it has much more in common with early Scorsese's semi-autobiographical films Who's That Knocking On My Door? and Mean Streets set to the sounds of disco instead of The Rolling Stones.

In essence, it takes the same Scorsese staples of the Italian virgin/whore complex, Catholic guilt and double-standards for men and women and filters it through a Scorsese styled group of young men with seemingly no direction or purpose except to work all week, blow their paychecks on threads, hair products, alcohol, and disco club admission fees on the weekends. And when they're not bragging to each other they're rolling around the backseat of their shared vehicle for the allotted maximum amount of time with any willing (or drunk enough) female until they inevitably get somebody pregnant, get married, get out of Brooklyn, or get dead.

Unabashedly repugnant in its misogynistic, racist, and downright atrocious language not to mention the sense of doom that pervades throughout as if Brooklyn were Hell on Earth and every Italian living in it was a walking stereotype with mothers who cross themselves, a brother who joins the priesthood out of guilt only to leave, and not understanding why perhaps a girl who's had the good fortune to leave this existence isn't overly willing to become the next tumble in the back of a crappy car in a public street.

Missing the cinematic poetry of Scorsese's work as well as its three dimensionality in the depictions of its characters-- Saturday Night Fever may have rang true for some youths but that doesn't excuse the fact that essentially there's nobody to root for in the film. Of course, following the advent of such surprising studio system changing hits including Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Bonnie and Clyde-- American audiences were inundated with anti-heroes despite the smash success of traditional mainstream fare like Spielberg and Lucas' Jaws and Star Wars respectively-- but even in dark works like Paramount's triumphant Godfather (my favorite film of all time), we still gave a damn about the characters.

Yet and far more troublesome in Fever-- even when he's portrayed by the crazily charismatic John Travolta, we still can't wholeheartedly root for our lead character Tony Manero (John Travolta) who dances like an angel and is treated like a God by women on Saturday nights only to treat them like used tissues in return once he's had his fun.

Nor, can we feel much more than sheer pity for either of the two female leads including the hopeless Annette (a terrific Donna Pescow) who willingly becomes a whore (leading to an essential one at-a-time against her will rape sequence near the film's conclusion until a death stops it) nor the phony Stephanie (Karen Gorney) who lives in Manhattan and is the best female dancer Tony's ever met but understandably when faced with this group of Italian sexist, racist stereotypes is unwilling to stoop to date someone from her old neighborhood.

Although the film's incredible Bee Gees soundtrack and the extraordinary dance sequences (the few actually there are; as basically Tony dances with himself throughout unless matched with Stephanie) help elevate the film and it's become a definite piece of filmed Americana for capturing a mood, a time, and a place.

Despite this, throughout, I couldn't help thinking that we were following the wrong main character as instead of the hedonist who must get the hell out of Brooklyn, we would have been much better off chronicling the fascinating subplot of Tony's brother who left the church and the priesthood only to find that he doesn't fit in with either lifestyle when he accompanies Tony on the town.

Obviously, the brother isn't alone as when he leaves the film, I found myself wanting to follow along but overall, it's an underdog dance story so we're stuck instead with a lukewarm plot, ugly characterizations, and a hero who is the opposite of heroic. This is especially the case when one of his ardent younger male friends is considered as Tony ignores the drama and heartache of his Sal Mineo like sidekick Bobby (a reference both Travolta and actor Barry Miller utilized in paying homage to Rebel Without a Cause) until it's much too late.

However, in Rebel, while James Dean was at least there for Mineo at the very end and he never once took advantage of Natalie Wood-- sadly the same can't be said for Travolta after he nearly rapes one woman in the film, drives another to get raped, until he finally crosses the bridge into Manhattan without standing by those he'd left in his wake.

Intriguingly, Rocky director John G. Avildsen who-- in that Oscar winning work proved his deft ability to blend gritty urban storytelling with true heart-- left the project over creative differences before filming began when his attempts to persuade Wexler to do a few rewrites and make changes didn't sit well with either the writer or the director.

As Andrews notes in his Travolta biography, after Avildsen-- going from the advice of his friend, collaborator, and Rocky star Sylvester Stallone who would ironically helm Fever's maligned sequel Staying Alive-- hired another screenwriter to rework some of the film in the hopes of breathing life into the downbeat Fever that he said was not his “vision” and likewise expressed negative feedback regarding a few of the Bee Gees tracks, he was released from the project in favor of John Badham (59-60).

While Badham was able to turn in a film he viewed more as a character piece than a downright musical genre work that drew raves despite the fact that it was just his second feature-- to this day, I still can't help thinking if the film would've benefited from offering us at least one character that wasn't simply a stereotype.

Definitely salvaged by the disco sequences set to the chart-topping, still best-selling Bee Gees soundtrack album that's filled with such gorgeous works as "How Deep Is Your Love" and countless others-- while sadly, as an Italian, a woman, and a writer, I still can't ignore its many, many, many detractors, the sound quality of the Blu-ray disc is spectacular and instantly transforms your viewing area into the famous club 2001 from the film.

While the cinematography of the work was always a bit grainy and soft in its colors especially when shooting in the darkly lit club that's filled with various colorful lights-- there's a modest improvement in the Blu-ray presentation that sharpens up some of the muddied evening scenes, although it's not nearly quite as crisp and dazzling as the much sunnier Grease.

Filled with the same extra features that populated the 30th Anniversary DVD including a near hour long walk down memory lane that's filled with interviews, a pop-up fun fact track called "70's Discopedia" and feature-length commentary with John Badham-- curiously Travolta is absent from EVERY single interview and extra.

His absence is felt throughout the featurettes that discuss everything from the "30-Year Legacy" of the movie, the soundtrack extra, and costume one but all the more so when you realize it's essentially "his" movie with features like "Spotlight on Travolta" and "Dance Like Travolta."

Further absences from the work include some of the lauded extras found on the 25th Anniversary DVD along with accompanying Badham's theatrical version with its sanitized PG-rated version to give fans a true reason to make the upgrade to Blu-ray.

Not quite as shiny as the disco ball with this wonderful sounding but slightly dulled visual transfer to high definition-- while for true die-hard fans, you'll still want to see what Travolta's famous white suit looks like cleaned up in 1080 pixels, unfortunately the rest of the visual performance doesn't live up to the price-tag.

Rockin' Rydell Edition


Seeing Grease again in the wake of High School Musical-- I was amazed by just how much of an impact this 1978 internationally beloved sing-along ready work has had on entertainment since its release.

Although even in its original Broadway form, it was hardly a new idea in its alternately affectionate homage to the sock hops and poodle skirt era of the '50s or its parody of the films, stars, and music of the time from Rebel Without a Cause to Elvis Presley-- nonetheless, it's impact is still felt more than thirty years later.

While on the surface, you can see it in direct plot set-up rip-offs like High School Musical in its tale of two kids who fall for each other while on break from school and the guy is thereafter startled to find the girl has become the newest addition to his class, it's also there in mini-moment like a racing or chicken style sequence that felt like it was echoed in Footloose. Likewise, it boasts the same pre-Mamma Mia! meets Rocky Horror Picture Show like legion of fans who sing along to the lyrics and act it out. Simply put-- it's a cult film all its own and Grease hasn't lost any off its gloss.

In a lustrous transfer of the film in the Blu-ray edition of the previously released Rockin' Rydell DVD, the sound and picture quality astound from the start as even those with a modest surround sound set-up or utilizing TV speakers will feel like they're experiencing a near movie theatre like presentation.

Having appeared in the Broadway show as one of the supporting cast-- hot off the success of Saturday Night Fever-- Travolta used both his clout and good instincts which stipulated that his Boy in the Plastic Bubble director Randal Kleiser would direct one of his three contractual films for Paramount when Stigwood signed him on. And in doing so, Travolta took on the role that Jeff Conaway had played as the cool high school dream boy Danny Zuko in this upbeat picture.

If you imagine the Frankie and Annette beach movies mixed with Doris Day and Sandra Dee's virginal sex comedies blended together with a walk on the wild side as experienced in Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and a few of the other “method” actor pictures of the era, you'll get a good sense of the theme and tone of Grease which likewise plays at times as though Elvis Presley had starred in Splendor in the Grass and it had been re-tooled as a romantic musical comedy.

While to hormonal high schoolers, the idea of a summer romance along with shedding extra layers of clothing in favor of swimwear is the ideal place to fall in love or lust-- as we learn in Grease bathing suits and hot sand also hide people's true nature, typical surroundings, and attitudes from plain sight as the sweet Australian Sandra Dee clone, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) falls for Travolta's local bad boy. Determined that she's just “not that kind of girl,” dutifully pushing him away when he kisses her passionately for more than two seconds, the two part ways for what they assume are their respective continents only to wind up in the exact same Rydell High School.

With Zuko as the leader of his leather jacket clad group “The T-Birds” with his wing-man Kenickie (Broadway's original Zuko, Jeff Conaway), Newton-John's peppy, out-of-her-element Sandy is well out of his periphery until she's “adopted” by the most maternal member of the female version of The T-Birds as run by Stockard Channing's Rizzo in "The Pink Ladies."

And conveniently Frenchy (a pitch perfect Didi Conn) latches onto Sandy like she's an adorable new puppy who needs to be trained so soon Sandy begins to spend time with the Ladies, much to the chagrin of Rizzo who is the polar opposite of Sandy's pure-as-the-driven-snow character.

When Sandy follows the school's advice that if you're not athletic, you should be an athletic supporter and becomes a cheerleader, at long last-- and following the standout musical number “Summer Lovin'” which offered the he said/she said version of their romance-- Sandy is placed in the same line-of-sight as Danny.

Reuniting at a homecoming event pep-rally (which is pointless as Rydell's team is the laughingstock of high school sports), Sandy is amazed to discover a much different Danny-- now minus the sunshine and bathing suit in favor of fake tough-guy pretense, male swagger, bravado, leather jackets and cars as he blows her off in front of the guys so as not to let his real feelings show.

While Sandy remains “Hopelessly Devoted” and heartbroken, she tries to move on dating Lorenzo Lamas but soon Danny sneaks back into her heart amidst a school of double standards regarding good girls, easy girls, and those like Frenchy who become a “Beauty School Droupout” in contrast to the sex and car obsessed guys.

About as deep as an Archie comic book-- the thing about Grease that makes it work so well is precisely that its only mission is to show the audience a good time, invite us to the party, and make sure we're enjoying ourselves throughout the entire film.

Although actress Didi Conn shares my surprise (and indeed my dismay) that children as young as six worship Grease which much like Dirty Dancing, isn't the type of film I'd want a young girl to latch onto as it's filled with so many sexual jokes, innuendos, and overtones that I doubt it would earn the same PG rating today not to mention it's a little annoying that Sandy has to feign being “slutty” to land the boy in “You're the One that I Want,” overall, the film's an absolute blast.

While a major believability problem-- other than some of the anachronisms such as the Barry Gibb penned “Grease is the Word” title track that sounds like a 1978 song instead of one from the '50s is that a large amount of the cast members look far too old to be playing high school students (and in some cases with the guys, it's downright giggle-inducing), you easily forgive all of that since it's letting you in on the joke that it knows precisely that it's fluff from the start.

Far less classical than most musicals and it will never stand out like Singin' in the Rain or any of MGM's Golden Age masterpieces-- it's nonetheless a great hybrid of the musical and rock 'n roll dance movie that has managed to keep the beat over the years as more people learn the steps and lyrics.

Filled with far more extras than the ones contained on the Saturday Night Fever Blu-ray-- most of which don't appear to have been transferred to high definition aside from the trailer-- the inviting behind-the-scenes featurettes such as the affectionate “Remembering Grease” are true standouts as we marvel at the dedication and true sense of pride and enjoyment those involved still seem to have for the work.

As it's noted in one of the Blu-ray extras that benefit nicely from their addition of John Travolta (yes, I'm still not sure why he was M.I.A. on Fever), the filmmakers wanted to retain the energy from the source material and actually invited Paramount executives and those on the lot to watch the elaborately choreographed high-quality production numbers that no-doubt helped push the cast even further in their work.

Filled with '50s in-jokes, cameos, and more-- while the Blu-ray quality of this one is superlative and the extras including, (of course) sing-alongs and more, turned this reviewer into a new-found fan who can appreciate it like the feel-great cinematic equivalent of instantly satisfying yet similarly forgettable delicious bubble-gum-- whether to make the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray would probably depend on which version of the film you own and the extras to which you are “hopelessly devoted.”

All in all, it's a terrific piece of entertainment and one that's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face as well as encourage different levels of appreciation throughout as this time I realized how utterly blown away I was by Stockard Channing's command of emotion and conviction in performance.

And while I'm still stunned that instead of the critically lauded Fever, in the end, Grease turned out to be “The One That I Want,” it was great fun exploring both once again to see the way that Travolta managed to dazzle us in some of his earliest challenging film roles.

And this was especially a great film buff pursuit to go back in time in his career, long before a man named Quentin Tarantino took it upon himself to remind us how good John Travolta had been all along with his Oscar nominated turn in Pulp Fiction that made us welcome back the Kotter actor yet again in a whole new light.