Meet Jamie Kastner, a shaggy-haired, Toronto-based director, satirist and comic provocateur, whose most recent work, ‘A Kike Like Me’, explored the globalised meaning of Jewishness. Like any respectful anthropological filmmaker, when Kastner decided to shift his gaze from all things Semitic he locked on an equally worthy topic, Harold Pinter.
Now I know as yet this tale seems quite far away from Donna Summer’s orgasmatron-esque moans on ‘Love to love you baby’, but people, lest we forget, it does show the omnipresent power of Pinter. According to Kastner, a discovery about an obscure Canadian relative of Pinter led him to pitch the story to a well-known Canadian arts channel. He was met with the following harsh, but possibly true, statement, ‘Nobody gives a shit about Harold Pinter anymore. How about a film on disco?’
And so the beautiful accident of ‘The Secret Disco Revolution’ was born.
What results is an ambitious film that approaches the advent of disco as an obscured revolution that liberated African Americans, female sexuality and homosexuals.
Despite these grand ambitions, the film’s exploration of its central theses is shallow. The main reason being the film’s clumsy storytelling, made up of an echoey voiceover – which would be at home nestled within Burt Reynold’s moustache in ‘Boogie Nights’- and the creation of the ‘Masterminds’ of disco, a group who drive the narrative arch of the film through a series of chapters which explain the growth and decline of disco.
Kastner’s assertion is that in order for a revolution to have taken place, revolutionaries have had to guide it. These are the ‘Masterminds’ who are dramatized as three camp figures looming ominously over a disco ball sprinkling in sugar, spice and everything nice, whilst orchestrating the disco liberation of the societal taboos.
Although the decision to include this fictional dimension does separate the film from the pitfall of being merely a dry chronological music documentary, it concurrently undermines the films central idea of disco being anything more than fun music for a Saturday night. By associating the idea of a disco revolution with a camp and over-the-top unbelievable metanarrative, the entire idea becomes facetious.
What saves ‘The Secret Disco Revolution’ is the iconic nature of its subject matter and its first person interviews. The strength of nostalgia is formidable, and it is fascinating to hear Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Gloria Gaynor and one half of the gargantuan Weather Girls explain how disco skyrocketed their careers into a state of arrested development.
A particularly fascinating interview subject is David Mancuso, the founder of the one of disco’s pioneering clubs, ‘The Loft’. Mancuso gives excellent commentary on the role of DJs in the commercialization of disco and the eventual oversaturation of the genre in America. He also gives an insight into his days as a DJ at the infamous Studio 54, including a particularly amusing story about the notorious half moon logo, which once every night had a spoon thrust under its nose with soap bubbles simulating cocaine. Indeed the section of the documentary dedicated to Studio 54 gives a wonderfully opulent footage of the legendary club and a selection of hilariously baffled reactions of regulars to the levels of hedonism reached at the venue’s peak.
However, it is Kastner’s sardonic take on some of his interview subjects that really gives the film its comedic edge. It is impossible not to snicker when Harry Wayne ‘KC’ Casey earnestly explains that his Sunshine Band’s hit ‘Shake Shake Shake (Shake Your Booty)’ is an inherently political song.
The hilarity of disco singers’ views on their songs, which are distinctly separate from the reality of their consumers, is quantified in a gloriously pokerfaced reaction of the Village People to Kastner’s query about what it was like to be fathers of some of history’s most iconic gay anthems. The absolute denial by the group (who are still deliciously decorated in moustaches and leather) of shadowy gay intentions in ‘Macho Man’ and ‘YMCA’ seems tantamount to CS Lewis proclaiming that Aslan was 100 per cent not an allegory for Jesus and that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was just an extended PETA commercial.
The entertainment power of the Village People is further exploited by the inclusion of a failed naval recruitment campaign which included a video of the band performing ‘In the Navy’ to a group of white-suited recruits on a warship. These clips help to remind us that it is the wonderfully ridiculous nature of disco that makes it worth revisiting. Kastner’s understanding of this and his comedic take on the juxtaposition between the serious medium of documentary filmmaking and the silliness of disco make the film ultimately worth watching.
The Secret Disco Revolution is screening in the Sonic strand of the 56th BFI London Film Festival.
Words by Zuleika Sedgley
TagsJamie Kastner, The Secret Disco Revolution, Zuleika Sedgley,