A friend had recently told me about a new disco documentary premiering at this year's Toronto International Film Festival this past Saturday (thanks Oliver!). While he wasn't entirely convinced, and despite the decidedly mixed reviews, I decided that if it was a documentary and it was about disco (and in my own backyard, no less), I had to go see it.
Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner's current film (Kastner was previously behind the docs Kike Like Me and Recessionize! For Fun and For Profit!) The Secret Disco Revolution is largely based around some of the key premises around two of the more recent revisionist histories about disco, Peter Shapiro's "Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco" and more pointedly, Alice Echols' "Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture" (she not only gets a lot of screen time, the poster art also matches her book) that Disco was not a throwaway fad, but really the soundtrack to a cultural revolution and the liberation of blacks, gays and women. While it seems fitting to have a documentarian use Echols and Shapiro's books, which are some of the most compelling works of disco scholarship in recent years; Kastner doesn't quite seem to agree entirely with their conclusions, spending approximately half of the film presenting them, and the other half sending them up. While that may seem like a cold splash in the face to some disco enthusiasts (myself included), and something of a Jamie Kastner signature judging from his earlier films, it actually becomes one of the film's stronger points. The way, however, in which he often presented many of those points, was not.
Using three Mod Squad style "disco revolutionaries", clad in nearly every single retro disco party costume cliché you can think of (dollar store afro, check! moustache and open-chest with heavy medallions, check!, glitter and blue eye-shadow, check!) to satirically tie together the history of disco, (their adventures narrated by actor Peter Keleghan), the film's main framing device was a total dud. While one can appreciate wanting to bring a sense of fun and levity to a documentary about disco; it not only seemed to generate more eye-rolls than laughs, but detracted, more than anything, from the otherwise serious exploration of the subject and the legitimate questions the film raises.
|The Village People|
Open questions aside, one problematic aspect of the film were some of its rather stark omissions. Perhaps a reflection of the filmmakers' outsider perspective (Kastner admitted he wasn't really a disco fan going into the project) though not, in this case, to the film's benefit. Can one really bring up black and gay liberation in disco and not even briefly touch on Sylvester? (An omission which an audience member pointed out in the Q&A). As well, can one bring up Studio 54 these days, but not, say, Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage as a counterpoint? While oft-referenced in its own way, Levan and the Garage are arguably more influential as a touchstone of the disco movement among current generations of listeners, than 54 ever was. Perhaps they felt they had sufficiently covered a 54 counterpoint with the inclusion of Siano and the accompanying Gallery footage. Though whatever the rationalization, it still felt like a missed opportunity in highlighting one of the more compelling cases of disco's enduring presence.
Imperfect as it is, Secret Disco Revolution at the very least does an adequate job of bringing together some different perspectives and some new ideas about disco to a general (read: non-fan) audience. The more discerning of disco denizens will likely be disappointed that the film, despite heavily referencing Shapiro and Echols' works, doesn't quite live up to either of them (less Disco Mod Squad and more footage and conversation, perhaps?). While not necessarily making up for its shortcomings, the interviews and often times incredible archive footage will probably be just enough for more disco-inclined viewers to chew on.
A note about the premiere: One of the film's main interview subjects, Thelma Houston was in attendance and dutifully delivered a rousing rendition of "Don't Leave Me This Way" at the end of the Q&A. Houston had the audience on their feet, waving their hands and (like the two ladies beside me) marveling at how strong and clear she still sounds (and that was singing to a track, hardly the best showcase for even the greatest of singers). Dare I say, the lady sounded so impressive; if one didn't know better, you would have thought she had recorded that song yesterday. The full Q&A and performance was recorded on video, so hopefully that will show up on the TIFF site in the near future. In the meantime, here's some amateur audience video (not mine) of Thelma's performance (thanks for the tip-off, Javier!)
Thelma Houston Sings at TIFF 2012
Uploaded by nice1dave
For those in the Toronto area who wish to see it, The Secret Disco Revolution will be screening a second time on Thursday, September 13th at 3 pm, at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
AND PARTY EVERY DAY.. (TUESDAY OCTOBER 6, 2009)
VINCE ALETTI'S DISCO FILES (WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 4, 2009)
THE GODFATHER OF DISCO (FRIDAY JUNE 15, 2007)
THE QUEENS OF DISCO WITH GRAHAM NORTON ON BBC ONE (WEDNESDAY MARCH 8, 2006)
THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION - A JAMIE KASTNER FILM (OFFICIAL WEBSITE)
FACEBOOK: THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION
680 NEWS: INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE KASTNER, "THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION"
TRIBUTE.CA: JAMIE KASTNER & THELMA HOUSTON INTERVIEW - THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
NOW TORONTO - TIFF GUIDE: THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION - REVIEW (BY RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI)
EXCLAIM.CA - TIFF REVIEWS: THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (BY DANIEL PRATT) (SEPTEMBER 6, 2012)
CULTURALMINING.COM - DANIEL GARBER INTERVIEWS JAMIE KASTNER ABOUT HIS NEW TONGUE-IN-CHEEK DOCUMENTARY (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
CANADIAN DISCO DOCUMENTARY THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION DEBUTS AT TIFF (BY CASSANDRA SZKLARSKI) (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
CTV NEWS - NEW TIFF DOC ASKS: DID DISCO TOUCH OFF A CULTURAL REVOLUTION? (SEPTEMBER 8, 2012)
CBC MUSIC - TIFF 2012: BEHIND THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (BY VISH KHANNA) (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
MSN CANADA - ENTERTAINMENT: FILMMAKER KASTNER OUTLINES DISCO'S SECRET HISTORY (BY SEÁN FRANCIS CONDON) (SEPTEMBER 6, 2012)
XTRA: TIFF PREVIEW - THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE KASTNER) (SEPTEMBER 4, 2012)
CATEGORIES: VISUAL DISCO, ARTICLES & RAMBLINGS