Monday, September 10, 2012

A revolution so secret, even its participants were unaware of it..


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.
Disco Mod Squad
  The "Revolutionaries"

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.

Henri Belolo
Henri Belolo 
On the positive side, the best parts of the film lie largely in the deftly employed goldmine of archive footage and the interviews which cover a broad spectrum of disco personalities, from mix masters Tom Moulton and Nicky Siano, to Gloria Gaynor and Thelma Houston repping the divas, to industry figures like Vince Aletti and Larry Harris to name only a few. Kastner's interview with Village People producer Jacques Morali's business partner and co-producer Henri Belolo is especially illuminating, coming across as the most articulate and insightful of all the interview subjects. The way the film presented the absurd gulf of contradictions between Belolo's take on the Village People's subversive gayness and that of the present group members' is undoubtedly one of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective). Another one of the film's more clever and pointed moments comes when Kastner brings Echols' and Shapiro's conclusions, namely the question of the political and revolutionary aspects of disco directly to the interview subjects whose answers seem to range from outright bewilderment (Thelma Houston and Martha Wash) to hostility (Harry Wayne Casey and the Village People). (For the record, Belolo, once again, came through with the most perceptive answer here).



The Village People
  The Village People
Kastner also gets points for not only bringing forth and giving ample time to Shapiro's and Echols' theories, but in also bringing up some of the contradictions that exist between their ideas and the reality of disco. For example, while disco was a genre that represented a new freedom for blacks, gays and women; as a largely producer driven genre, how come it seemed to represent the very opposite for many of its artists? Also, for a genre that represented liberation and inclusion, how does one explain why and how did Studio 54, one of its ultimate cultural representations, symbolize such a crass and superficial exclusivity? All valid questions, which the film doesn't necessarily answer; Kastner seems to content to leave that for the viewer (although I suppose you could reply to the former with a treatise on rockism, but that's another documentary).

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.
Thelma Houston
Thelma Houston 


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)

LINKS:
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

8 comments:

Kristofer David said...

Great review Tommy. Thank you very much. Hugs. KD

Tommy said...

No problem, Kris! Appreciate it! :)

professor Eddy said...

Interesting post! I'm very curious about the documentary. Hopefully I can see it on dvd one day.

Tommy said...

Hope so too Eddy. Or streaming on Netflix the very least (although I've never really used it all that much, myself).

dvdjamm said...

Oh wow...I didn't know you came back! I was just going to re-read some of your older posts and see that you're back. Thanks for coming back and now I get to do some catchin' up!

Tommy said...

Yes, back for now! I remember you tweeting me about that some months back :) Anyway, there isn't that much to catch up on, but hopefully you'll find some of the newer posts worthwhile..

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