Was there more to the oft-maligned disco era than meets the heavily lashed eye? According to a documentary screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival: maybe.
In The Secret Disco Revolution, Toronto-based filmmaker Jamie Kastner (pictured above) explores academic re-interpretations of disco music that suggest the heady, four-on-the-floor rhythms and uplifting melodies that swept through New York City’s nightclubs and captured the American public’s imagination in the late 1970s, were actually part of a wider cultural watershed moment for women, gays and black people.
Featuring interviews with influential producers and DJs like Tom Moulton and Nicky Siano, Village People co-creator Henri Belolo and disco divas Martha Wash, Thelma Houston and Evelyn “Champagne” King, among others, the film is told through the perspective of three cheesy disco archetypes – or “masterminds” – that plot a short-lived takeover of American pop culture before a public backlash returns the genre to niche status.
With Canadian theatrical and television distribution in place, Kastner is hoping to secure deals for the rest of the world following the occasion of the film’s world premiere at TIFF. To find out the hurdles he faced in piecing together his revisionist romp through the disco era, realscreen spoke with the filmmaker in advance of the film’s TIFF debut.
Is disco a genre of music that you listen to and enjoy?
Honestly, no. Saying that I came to make this film in a roundabout way would be an understatement. I went to pitch a film to [the cable network] Bravo in Canada, which at the time was an arts channel, about Harold Pinter the playwright, and basically I was told no one cares about Harold Pinter anymore. In fact, I’m pretty sure the phrase was, “No one gives a shit about Harold Pinter anymore. How about a film on disco?” So I said OK. While I hadn’t been a fan of disco, I had made a music film for them before. I had also begun my career as a music critic, so it wasn’t completely crazy that I would do a film on disco.
Somebody sent me a book that was a revisionist history of disco [Turn the Beat Around: A Secret History of Disco] by Peter Shapiro. That was the first of a couple of books; another one came out while I was working on the film. But basically these books are trying to reclaim the era as a misunderstood time of protest and liberation. My initial reaction to this was to laugh but then I thought, “Huh, maybe there’s something to this.” That pretty well mirrors the reaction of most people I tell about the film now. The revisionist historians are the jumping off point for the film.
How did you decide to creatively approach telling this revisionist history?
When Alice Echols’ book [Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture] came out, which was the second revisionist history, I thought there would be an interesting, colorful dichotomy between the revisionist history and the experience of the people who went through it… Ultimately the structure emerged of using the chronology of the disco decade as a guide and the academic theories as a foil against which to play interviews with all the disco greats I could get my hands on, which fortunately thanks to my wonderful research team, wound up including the Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Kool and the Gang and Thelma Houston [who performed her disco hit Don't Leave Me This Way at the film's September 8 TIFF world premiere, pictured below].
I wanted to do something a little bit playful, befitting the subject matter: I wanted to engage in playful debate with my main character. And question – not dismiss, not mock – some of her theories. This is actually a remarkably difficult thing to do, I found. Especially in my previous films, I have a distinctively ironic tone that is tied to my own presence on camera in the film. While being in a film has certain narrative restrictions, it also gives you a natural platform from which to comment on the action.
Ultimately what I came to was, I think, a somewhat novel tone for a doc; it’s kind of like giving the tone of a faux history… The tone of this film is there was a secret disco revolution, so secret the participants themselves were unaware of it. If it was so secret the participants themselves were unaware of it, there must have been secret masterminds puppeteering the whole thing. So I created the world of the secret mastermind behind disco. There are three cheesy glittery Mod Squad-type fictional characters that drift through the action, purportedly masterminding the secret revolution we’re now learning about for the first time.
How did you approach the people you wanted to interview for the film?
Well it’s never easy to get celebrities of any kind to do interviews. It’s a dreadful, thankless task which unfortunately I’ve taken on many times and am about to take on again with this new project I’m working on about Jewish humor. In some ways you’d expect that people who were famous 30 years ago would be happy to be approached for a documentary and be treated as celebrities again. Sometimes this is the case. Other times people know their worth as performers very specifically within the context of what you’re trying to do. They’re performers, so they’re used to negotiating fees to appear. They know you can’t do a disco documentary without X, Y, Z, so they make you work for it.
There are some people I managed to find that are very fresh, seldom-interviewed people, and I was very happy about that. For instance Henri Belolo, the often-forgotten about co-producer/co-creator of the Village People. The Village People, for aficionados of such things, are usually associated with the more flamboyant and dead creator, Jaques Morali, who died in 1991 of AIDS. Quite late in the editing, it dawned on me rereading the research for the nth time – “Morali and his partner Belolo,” “Morali and his partner Belolo,” “Morali and his partner Belolo,” – I just thought, whatever happened to his partner Belolo? Lo and behold, the guy is in Paris, living in a palace a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, with walls lined with platinum records. He’s a really nice, intelligent and articulate guy who very seldom gives interviews. For whatever reason I got him at the right time, the project appealed to him, and he wanted to talk. He’s a wonderful new voice on this topic.
One of the best scenes in the film is when you cut between Belolo and the Village People, who are completely aghast when you suggest they were part of a subversive gay agenda. What was that interview like to do?
The Village People interview was certainly the most surprising interview of the film. When I approached other people I told them I was talking about the era and some new theories about the era and I’d love to have them come and talk about that. It’s a pretty straight-forward request. In the case of the Village People, it started off with a line of questioning that I considered obvious, which was about the Village People being gay icons. It was sort of intimated to me before by their management that they didn’t want to talk about their personal lives, and I didn’t want to talk about their personal lives either, but it didn’t strike me as a radical notion that the Village People as a group – who were a fabricated group anyway – are gay icons.
You could say the interview went off the rails from that point forward. We never really got past that question, which was meant to be, like, three of 20. I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that this caused them so much consternation after 30 years. It made for some irresistible inter-cutting once I was able to talk to their creator, and he had a version of history that completely contradicted what they were saying. Ultimately it’s kind of sad. It raises questions about how, if disco was in fact a revolution, how successful was it? If this is the Village People’s response in this day and age to such a basic question.
What does that say about the revisionist thesis that disco was a revolutionary movement?
If it was a revolution, how successful a revolution was it if the Village People are still extremely uncomfortable talking about themselves as gay icons? I think first and foremost it’s really, hopefully a fun film. It’s disco. I’d really be remiss in my duties if I hadn’t delivered a fun film on disco. And actually there are a lot of documentaries on disco that were done in years past that you haven’t heard of, because they’re not fun at all. It’s a fun era; it’s hilarious and charming. Whether it’s fun music, whether it’s protest music, we can debate forever, but it’s certainly fun. Ditto all the pictures, and we had the budget to really go to town with stock footage of the era.
As a secondary thing, it’s a story about the way history gets written. The way it gets co-opted by various quarters who try to put their spin on it for various reasons, and the jagged image that emerges when you try to combine and make sense of all those things, without being too presumptuous about a film on disco making any statements that are too profound here.
The Secret Disco Revolution screens again at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, at 3 p.m.
Check out the film’s trailer below: