Monday, June 17, 2024

disco: soundtrack of a revolution



This Summer, PBS is harnessing a BBC Production of Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution, directed by Louise Lockwood and Shianne Brown. The docuseries is refreshingly frank about the evolution of disco—its black, brown, and queer roots. For those who know, know, but audiences tuning into PBS, young and old, may be re-introduced to disco’s meanings and origins for the first time, or looking at its history anew, still a bit cloudy and derided in music criticism and within popular culture.

The series is split into three, breezy, satisfying bites. Starting with David Mancuso’s (dubbed the “Father of Clubbing”) and his NYC loft gatherings in the early 1970s, mostly made up of people of color partying to “danceable R&B.”  Soon, parties like Mancuso’s started cropping up in cities across America. A 1972 track by Eddie Kendricks, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” with its persistent beat, smooth vocal, and deep, trembling piano, fast became an underground hit. Technological advancements of more robust stereo systems filling sound in large rooms accelerated the rise of clubs. Discotheques began to fuse together marginalized groups, some hit hard by the economic crisis, by providing safe spaces and emotional (and physical) outlets.

The beats became stronger, and even more driving, on subsequent records like Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost,” both integral to sounds of early disco. The birth of two turntables created a whole new game where a seamless, blended crossover of tunes could keep the party going without stopping all night long and into the morning. This hedonistic, party culture is captured well through the series’ intricate use of archival footage (the deft film editing is by Ed Horne, Damian Leask, and Jonathan Seal).

There is a parallelism between disco and capitalism—one thing after another—excess and growth, over a monotonous, driving beat.  During this era, record companies were now symbiotic with what was playing in the clubs, not just the payola whims of radio. Though disco rapidly started to infiltrate the charts and airwaves, previously mostly of white rock formats, with separate R&B stations.  A humorous story emerges in the second episode of Casablanca Records buying sixteen minutes of airtime on radio stations so they could play Donna Summer’s epic “Love to Love You Baby,” an enduring classic that marries sexual explicitly with the disco sound. The sexual nature of disco, and the rise of queer and fearlessly flamboyant artists like Sylvester, would of course cause backlash with conservatives and religious groups at the time (somehow the Village People with their major key, sing-songy tunes and blatant queer references, eschewed scrutiny). Interestingly, many of the disco divas portrayed here, like Patti LaBelle, began singing in the church; elements of gospel are an undeniable facet in American disco music in particular. And the series invokes the soaring anthems of Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” (written after an incident with an abusive partner), Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and, of course, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which became an emblematic song at a wearied nation’s decade’s end.

Unlike past disco retrospectives, the titanic Saturday Night Fever, with John Travolta's Tony Manero as the straight, Rocky-type, who made disco relatable to white, straight culture, is less pronounced here. The music, too, those ubiquitous Bee Gees’ tunes, are praised by the doc’s talking heads. Yet, by leading up to this moment in 1977 with so much before, the documentary shows how the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon was directly and indirectly appropriated from black and queer culture.   


These influences permeating the mainstream (including the newscasts on the storied Studio 54), and the disintegration of white rock radio, (not too mention, probably too, the economic strain of the 1970s, including the gas crisis), led in part to the infamous Disco Demolition Night, detailed well here.  

As the party and fun peaks, then quickly winds down, the series gets a bit slack as well. The doc shows how disco never really died, just morphed into new sounds, such as house, and Larry Levan and his inventive garage music. The series features engaging testimonies from the likes of Staton, Ward, Nicky Siano, David Morales, Honey Dijon, and more. Overall, this is a worthwhile trip through history, and looks to disco admirably, and with some complexity, rather than an embarrassment, as treated often in the past. ***

 

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution debuts with Episode 1, “Rock the Boat,” on Tuesday, June 18th at 9 PM ET.

Episode 2, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” premieres Tuesday, June 25th at 9 PM ET.

The third and final episode, Episode 3, “Stayin’ Alive,” lands Tuesday, July 2nd at 9PM ET.





-Jeffery Berg

Friday, June 7, 2024

in a violent nature

Some horror fans weaned on Friday the 13th films in the 1980s have long wished for a straightforward slasher. A horror film absent of creepy kids, nuns, and swirling CGI effects. In a way, Chris Nash’s In A Violent Nature, fits the bill. Craftily shot by cinematographer Pierce Derks, with a lingering, moody style reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s experimental Gerry, Jeff Liberman’s 1981 Just Before Dawn and the remote, woodsy vibe of the early Friday films, In A Violent Nature is no doubt gorgeous and gory. However, a nagging emptiness lies within. Perhaps that’s the point, but slasher fans may be a bit let down that this isn’t a rewatchable goody. 

For much of the film, the camera takes the perspective from behind the back of the killer. It’s an unusual stance that conveys the killer’s point-of-view, without doing it directly. A bulky, mangled, Jason-type, we watch him stalk wordlessly around the woods, slaughtering some locals and a clan of drifty, twentysomething-types out camping. Unlike its 80s influences, the film doesn’t concentrate too much on eclectic characters (none of them really pop, except for one in the movie’s mealy attempt at portraying a politically correct smartphone smarty). The group is revealed through snatches of innocuous conversations, shots of them here and there in the dark in the haze of their pot smoke, and the bleary, bummer music they listen to. The lore of the killer is a bit unmemorable as well, and not really compelling enough to mull over. Without much emphasis on character, the film instead greatly emphasizes the ingenuity, bravura make-up and special effects of its nasty, grim kills (though a well-edited lake sequence is the most eerily effective). Filmed in Canada, the film also feels like anywhere woodsy USA (we hear a faint snippet of a newscast covering Senator Joe Manchin and out-of-work steelworkers). In combining all of the aforementioned elements, including a lack of a musical score to create a distancing, cozy dimension of artifice, overall, there’s almost a sense of depressing nihilism. 

After a beautifully shot, almost operatic final girl chase in moonlit woods, with spooky, jittery natural sound effects, the film takes an intriguing, pace-blunting swerve in the last act, that features Lauren-Marie Taylor, an actress from Friday the 13th Part II. Suddenly the movie feels almost Dardenne brothers-esque. It’s kind of a tepid sequence, but there’s something about the ease and world-weariness within the story her character tells, and the casting of someone part of such an impactful cinematic slasher franchise, that feels acutely elegiac. **1/2


-Jeffery Berg





Wednesday, June 5, 2024

hidden master: the legacy of george platt lynes


My starred review of the George Platt Lynes documentary is here at Film-Forward.



I hadn't heard of him before and I'm so glad to be introduced to his work through this intelligent, beautifully wrought film.






Thursday, May 2, 2024

the contestant



I wasn't familiar with Susunu! Denpa Shōnen until encountering Clair Titley's new documentary, The Contestant. The first half is a fascinating glimpse in the ethical dilemmas of an early reality TV competition show in 1998 and its mostly unware participant, Nasubi. The second half strains for uplift in Nasubi's story. Still, it's amazing how prescient this show would be! 

My Film-Forward review here.

Friday, April 26, 2024

challengers


I loved Challengers!

Masterful direction by Luca Guadagnino and silk-smooth editing by Marco Costa.

My Film-Forward review here.











Thursday, April 11, 2024

sasquatch sunset


Much of the Zellner Brothers' Sasquatch Sunset was gross and goofy, but I didn't expect to get hit with a brooding, existential buzz: thinking about the movie days after and seeing humankind in a new light.

My Film-Foward review here.