With his satirical documentary The Secret Disco Revolution, the producer-director-writer Jamie Kastner wickedly lampoons the revisionists who now view Seventies disco as a form of protest music that helped liberate gays, blacks and women. The film screens at the weekly Open Roof Festival series on June 27, one day before it opens at the Cineplex Odeon Yonge & Dundas. We spoke to Mr. Kastner about a revolution so secretive that many of the participants were unaware of the supposed manifesto.
It’s clear from the outset of the film, with the sardonically serious narrator you use, that you’re not buying into the idea that disco music was a tool for cultural and societal revolution. Fair to say?
People have reacted to the narrator’s tone in a variety of ways. Your interpretation of it is how I hoped it would read. The narrator, Peter Keleghan, is a funny guy. Without my narrative presence, it was very tricky to inseminate any irony. I do admit my first reaction to the revisionism was “disco as revolution? Oh, come on.” My respect did grow as I plunged deeper into the material, but it’s still kind of fun and funny.
Why didn’t you just challenge some of the revisionists on camera?
I find that if you undermine your key characters, who are your experts, too early in the film, your audience is going to ask why they should listen to this person for the next 85 minutes. If I made the academics look too foolish, that’s what would have happened.
And you use some of the disco artists themselves, who are as skeptical as you are, to counter the theories of the experts.
Exactly. And once you start thinking that the revolution was so secret the participants were unaware of it, then it’s only a small mental leap that if it was that secretive, there must have been secret disco masterminds puppeting the thing.
You do acknowledge that disco upset the music business model at the time. Musician unions weren’t happy when DJs began replacing live bands in clubs. And the cozy relationship between radio stations and major labels was disrupted as well.
Yes, payola, for lack of a better word, had worked perfectly well for decades. And then, with disco, there was this organic, out-of-left-field new model of hits being made, with DJs and clubs generating record sales for artists the record labels weren’t going to bother pushing.
And can we say that if disco wasn’t protest-based as a genre, that there were political elements in some of the songs? Could we not see Sister Sledge’s We Are Family as a feminist anthem?
It was written and produced by Nile Rodgers. Not that that matters – men can be feminists too. But, yes, absolutely. I may be a bit facile in poking fun at it, but I don’t dismiss the notion that the era had revolutionary effects on the culture. I think there is a lot of of truth to what the revisionists are saying, even if the way they are saying it makes me chuckle.
The Open Roof Festival is a weekly open-air, waterside film series. Thursdays, 8 p.m $15. The Moonview Lot, 175 Queens Quay E., openrooffestival.com.
This interview has been edited and condensed