The Village People are having none of it.
In his new documentary The Secret Disco Revolution, Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner suggests that disco, the musical form that vaulted this group of high-camp performers in man’s-man drag into instant icons of the 1970s, was actually a protest movement dedicated to the liberation of blacks, gays and women.
The aging Villagers stare at him as though he’d suggested the 4/4 beat was a subliminal war chant for world domination. (Which, come to think of it, is what he’s suggesting – sort of.)
The Village People aren’t alone in their wary regard of Kastner’s movie, an appropriately snappy, tongue-slightly-in-cheek pop-anthropological movie that never entirely decides if its framing thesis – that the dance-floor craze that shook a billion booties was political – is serious or not.
You’ll see the same look of skepticism on the faces of Robert (Kool) Bell of Kool and the Gang, Gloria Gaynor, journalist Michael Musto and Harry Wayne (K.C. Casey) of KC and the Sunshine Band. While most may well agree that disco was a musical form unfairly maligned by history, they’re not quite willing to own up to an underground insurgency fought with coke spoons, synthesizers and mirror balls.
But is that because disco is simply too obviously – obliviously even – brainless to bear the weight of world-shaking political agenda? Or because the title is in fact truer than Andrea True herself: The revolution was so secret, not even the individual cells had any idea what was going on?
As much a movie about the way pop-cultural movements are inevitably processed through jargon-freighted, academic signification rituals, The Secret Disco Revolution can also be regarded as a sly statement about why fun can’t in itself qualify for historical tenure: It’s got to be defended as something sober and edifying. Everybody remembers the ubiquitous punk-era “disco sucks” credo, and more than one of Kastner’s musical subjects is still stung by the phrase. (When K.C. mentions it, he’s almost in tears.)
But every bit as potent was disco’s own rallying cry of simply “let’s dance,” a reaction against seriousness, intellectualization and a world that, by the early 1970s, was proving that the very idea of pop culture as a form of liberation from anything other than tediously self-important claims was bogus.
Rock was delivering nobody from anything; political protest had yielded Nixon, Watergate, endless war in Vietnam and stagflation; and it was no longer sufficient to say that all we needed was love. What we really needed more than anything was fun, and disco, with its call for dressing up, getting wasted and boogie-oogie/boogie-woogie dancing shoes, was a big, fat, fake-nailed finger to it all. In this, the roots of glam rock and disco were tightly intertwined.
By the time Saturday Night Fever came along in 1977, both to certify the movement’s supernova status and hasten its burial, people were already sick of it. So much so, they didn’t bother to notice what lay so miserably behind the movie’s veneer of white-polyester, Bee Gee-falsettoed sheen: as bleak an account of underclass urban hopelessness, anger and defeat as a bus tour of Times Square.
John Travolta’s Tony Manero might have been a nightclub shining star, but only because he needed to be. All else was hopeless and lost to him, the darkness at the edge of the Odyssey nightclub’s parking lot. Disco was political but only in the utter resignation to pure sensation it promised, the perennial pop-cultural appeal to escape. Moreover, lest we forget, Tony was actually a fellow traveller of none other than than ultimate punk rebel Johnny Rotten, whose anthemic “no future” credo was simply a dirtier, scruffier and rock-retrofitted statement of what Tony had already spat out back on the mean streets of Brooklyn: “Oh, f–k the future.”
The Secret Disco Revolution screens June 27 at the Open Roof outdoor music and film festival at 175 Queens Quay East and opens in theatres in Toronto and Montreal June 28.