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 on PBS 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

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