Few Revolutions Have Made Use of Mirrored Balls as Well as "The Secret Disco Revolution" Did Review

When filmmaker Jamie Kastner approached Bravo producer Charlotte Engel about making a documentary about the playwright Harold Pinter, Engel (rightly?) responded, “Nobody gives a shit about Harold Pinter anymore, how about a film on disco?” Kastner said, “OK.” And The Secret Disco Revolution was born. What arises is Kastner’s examination of the disco movement as he muses (along with the interviewees) on whether this movement was sheer frivolity or an actual revolution.

By 1969, amidst race riots and the Stonewall raid, the civil rights and gay pride movements were in nascent form seeking more exposure and traction. R&B music was becoming overly politicized, too preachy and not very fun. And women were beginning to celebrate the female orgasm. Thus, as narrator Peter Keleghan puts it, the “masterminds” created disco.

In 1971, The Loft in Greenwich Village pushed aside the chairs to form a dance floor. With an economic downturn and a dirty city, people needed a way to let loose and forget their troubles. While this may have normally been the formation of a violent uprising a la Les Miserables, people started to dance instead. With songs like Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From” people would forget their worries and dance their night away.

For women, disco embraced “the era of the female orgasm” with iconic songs like Donna Summer’s 20-minute single “Love to Love You Baby.” For African Americans they had new music idols to look to like the aforementioned women or Kool and the Gang (who had the disco hit “Ladies’ Night”), avoiding that now overly politicized R&B music. And for gay men, the dance floor became the new gathering place as they wholeheartedly embraced singles like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and started the trend of sweaty, shirtless dancing that continues in homosexual culture to this day. Disco music became a movement embraced by the subverted communities.

But was it really a revolution? Kastner poses this question to various interviewees, yet none of them are inclined to agree with him. For them, disco was just a frivolous music movement of hooks that get stuck in your head and make you want to dance. There are even disagreements amongst the interviewees regarding the intent of their own songs.

In one very humorous sequence, Kastner interviews the Village People and, separately, Henri Belolo, the producer and lyricist for the Village People. Belolo claims that his lyrics in songs like “Macho Man” and “In the Navy” were meant to symbolize gay culture. However, the singers of the Village People call Belolo a hack, citing that the song “YMCA” only exists because those were the first four letters he saw when seeking lyrical inspiration. This dichotomy in opinion provides immense amusement while also challenging your concept of such a well-known, iconic group.

Although those interviewed disavow that this musical movement was a revolution, Kastner poses the idea that this was a secret revolution even to those involved in it. Enter the “masterminds.” These fictional, metaphorical “beings” are interwoven throughout the film by the narrator, citing their influence on the disco culture—depicted through their use of a magic disco ball. They are played by three actors meant to represent the main communities involved in disco: a blonde woman, an African American man, and a gay man—all dressed in disco-appropriate attire. While inventive, they are a hokey addition to an otherwise serious documentary.

Revolution or not, all trends must die; and disco had quite a death. Disco haters staged a massive record burning ceremony to show their disdain for the movement. By this point, in 1979, disco had pervaded the mainstream culture with studios producing formulaic disco music, killing the ingenuity and essence of the songs that had started the movement. By 1980, disco had mostly dropped off the charts.

But, like a phoenix, disco continues to be reborn from those record ashes. It once again is appearing in popular culture either through new music albums (like those by The Scissor Sisters and Daft Punk) or through TV shows (Glee did a disco episode and So You Think You Can Dance? has a disco genre) or even through the reemergence of older films (Criterion recently released Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco on Blu-ray). Whether frivolous or revolutionary, disco certainly had a lasting impact on culture, and that’s the real underlying message of The Secret Disco Revolution.

"The Secret Disco Revolution" opens June 28, 2013 and is not rated. Documentary. Written and directed by Jamie Kastner. Starring Peter Keleghan.

Jun
28
2013
John Keith • Staff Writer

Writer. TV Addict. Bibliophile. Reviewer. Pop Culture Consumer. Vampire Enthusiast. LOST fanatic.

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