For about ten seconds in 1998, Whit Stillman had the world loving disco again with his wry The Last Days of Disco, but then Mike Meyers had everyone hating it again when Studio 54 came out two months later. Jamie Kastner tries to make the music cool once more, but he wildly overstates his case in The Secret Disco Revolution (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Essentially, Kastner argues discos were a unique melting pot in American cultural history, becoming the first place where people of all races and sexual orientations danced the nights away in a hedonistic orgy of tolerance. There might be a kernel of something to that, but he inflates it into a bizarre mock-secret history, in which the disco kids battled the forces of the reactionary, rock & roll loving, racist establishment. That’s right rockers, you’re just the tools of the man. In doing so, Kastner draws heavily from the work of former deejay turned professor Alice Echolls, who often sounds like a caricature of publish-or-perish academia in her many talking head segments.
Still, there are some sharply telling interviews with the artists and producers who defined the disco era, including Harry Wayne “KC” Casey, Robert “Kool” Bell, Maxine Nightingale, and super-producer Tom Moulton. However, original Village People band-member Felipe Rose really steals the show, responding to Kastner’s questions with increasingly animated incredulity.
Rather than merely looking back on disco with nostalgia and affection, Kastner is clearly trying to use it as a salvo in the culture war, even though reality often does not fit his theories. It was an inclusive time we hear, except for that velvet rope at Studio 54, which became the epitome of class division. Time and again, the performers and hangers-on deny there was any political subtext to the music. Often, they explicitly contradict Kastner’s narrative, asserting disco was a non-political sphere to get away from the stagflation, malaise, and urban decay of 1970’s New York.
To an extent, Village People co-founder and co-producer Henri Belolo plays ball, likening the spontaneous “disco sucks” movement to National Socialist book-burning, but such hyperbole is not persuasive. After all, Casablanca Records’ Larry Harris slyly confesses the label rather enjoyed the Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, because they had to buy records for it.
Kastner’s gimmicky dramatization of the “mysterious masterminds” supposedly behind the disco revolution hardly bolsters the film’s credibility. Nor does the wildly over-the-top narration help much either. The simple truth is musical tastes changed in the 1980’s. Tiring of records released by studio creations rather than bands, people began to prefer authenticity in music. Ironically, Punk would outlive disco, eventually going relatively mainstream. Wynton Marsalis launched a neo-classical return to jazz’s bop-based acoustic roots, while old school rockers like Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen would release the biggest hits of their career in the 1980’s. There was nothing racist or homophobic about such developments. In fact, for musicians who rely on live gigs to pay the bills, this was all jolly good news.