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Director: ‘Saturday Night Fever’ stayin’ relevant after 40 years

John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney in "Saturday Night Fever." | PARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT

It’s one of the most memorable opening sequences in film history. Let’s face it, carrying a can of paint along a bustling Brooklyn street never looked so cool. The accompanying music served the action well, and would come to define the disco era.

It’s been 40 years since Tony Manero took that famous stroll courtesy of actor John Travolta and the film “Saturday Night Fever.” The music was provided by the Bee Gees (along with cuts from the Trampps, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Kool and the Gang, among others). Travolta would garner an Oscar nomination for his work. The soundtrack album would win the Grammy for album of the year (one of only a handful of movie soundtracks to do so). And a certain white polyester suit would take its rightful place alongside Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Marilyn Monroe’s “subway dress” as icons of pop culture.

The film’s milestone anniversary is being celebrated in a special director’s cut, arriving May 2 on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Media. The movie has been restored in 4K from the original negatives and includes several added scenes. (The release also includes the original theatrical version.) The film is also being re-released in more than 700 theaters nationwide on May 7 and 10 by Fathom events.

“I know that from watching how the picture has continued to perform over 40 years, it really doesn’t matter what culture you’re from or what country you’re from because these characters just seem to connect to people,” director John Badham says of his film. “People related to them. I was born in England, and I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and the only thing I really knew about Brooklyn was how to spell it. [Laughing] And yet, when I read the script [by Norman Wexler], I was so excited about these characters. I immediately felt a connection with them.”

Director John Badham speaks onstage at the screening of “Saturday Night Fever” during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images
Director John Badham speaks onstage at the screening of “Saturday Night Fever” during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images

The film paints a vivid portrait of a slice of 1970s Americana in everything from its fashion, its politically incorrect language and its overt racism to its family dynamics, the meaning of friendship and what defined success.

“There was this documentary-style rawness to the film that people may or may not recognize,” the 77-year-old Badham says. “The dancing is great and you remember the music. But if you go back and really pay attention there are a lot of really interesting characters. We remember Tony and his happy-go-lucky friends, but they’re sexist, they’re racist, they do things that are not very admirable. But they’re kids and somehow you just go with it. … The family dynamic was also powerful. I credit screenwriter Norman Wexler for all of that. He was an absolute genius in his ability to write these characters. … The movie is built on a solid character foundation.”

Among the restored footage for the director’s cut is one scene in which Tony’s out-of-work father (played by Val Bisoglio) gets his job back, prompting a steely gaze from the son who longs for his dad’s respect. Another involves Tony and his pals riding around in their car in the daytime and bemoan the drudgery and hopelessness of their lives, prompting an exasperated Tony to exit the vehicle and head to a bench overlooking the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,, where he “traces” the bridge’s expanse with his fingers in the air.

Badham, whose film credits also boast “Short Circuit,” “War Games” “Blue Thunder” and “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” has spent much of the decades since “SNF” directing for television, including the Chicago-based “Beast,” which starred the late Patrick Swayze. “That was probably the last time I was in Chicago,” Badham says. “Patrick was just wonderful. He was so very ill at the time but he was not giving up on life.”

The white suit that John Travolta wore in “Saturday Night Fever” (alongside Karen Lynn Gorney) belonged for a time to Chicago film critic Gene Siskel. | Paramount Pictures
Karen Lynn Gorney and John Travolta dance the disco night away in “Saturday Night Fever.” Travolta’s white polyester suit is a film costume icon. | PARAMOUNT PICTURES