Pride Month: Disco Double Feature
The late 70s; decadent nightclubs, great music, and everyone losing themselves in the rhythm. Fun was the operative and there were little to no "closets" to be found. Freedom, both sexual and personal, reigned supreme. This was before the onslaught of the AIDS Crisis and the devastating toll it took on the LGBTQ community, a time when the free-wheeling nature of the 60's was still in effect and most didn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately that all came crashing down in the 80s - Disco wasn't cool anymore, sex was a death sentence, and Wall Street yuppie culture was the new normal.
For those that didn't get to live through these crazy times, we have documentaries, stories from our parents (my mother danced with the Village People), and films to look back on and glean a bit of what it was really like. To close out Talk Film Society's Pride Month series, I figured I'd highlight two of the more memorable films that depict the era, one, a serious look at the craze of Studio 54, and the other, one of the most wild and fun nights at a Disco you could possibly imagine.
54: The Director's Cut (2015) d. Mark Christopher
Originally released in 1998 in a severely butchered form, Mark Christopher's 54 was certainly not the film that was meant to be released. A disastrous test screening led to studio mandates, and thanks to the Weinstein Brothers, the picture was gutted of almost everything that would make the film what it was supposed to be. Almost all references to homosexuality were scrubbed from the picture thanks to extensive reshoots out of fear of alienating the mainstream. In hindsight, that was complete folly as this picture was never going to have widespread appeal. Studio 54 may be a legendary place, but in the 90s it was only that, a legend, a place of myth. The theatrical cut released in 1998 is almost a complete travesty with the only highlights being the music and the setting.
Flash forward to 2008 when a VHS bootleg of Christopher's workprint started making the rounds at various film festivals. Over the next few years, Christopher finally had the chance to make the film he wanted to make all those years ago. Culled from VHS dailies this new cut of 54 is a revelation. The homosexual subtext that was barely there in the theatrical cut is now just text. Gay subplots and the more grimey aspects of the club are now in full effect. Since these new scenes were taken from VHS quality sources, it adds a grit to the proceedings that was nowhere to be found in the theatrical cut. Gone is the slickness of that version, and with new scenes having a low video quality, it adds an almost documentary or Cinéma vérité feel to 54 that helps it far more than it hurts it.
What we have now with 54: The Director's Cut is far less fanciful but much more vital. Still present of course is a career best performance by comedian Mike Myers as night club impresario Steve Rubell. Myers gives a rare dramatic turn here and truly knocks it out of the park, and had the theatrical cut been a better picture, I'm almost certain we would be referring to him as Oscar Nominee Mike Myers these days. An absolute lost cause of a human being, Rubell thought he was more powerful than everyone and his hubris was his downfall. Add in some great performances by Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, and Breckin Meyer and the drama on display is both relatable and palpable. For audiences who dismissed 54 on it's initial release they owe it to themselves to seek out this Director's Cut; it's a completely different beast and a film ripe for reassessment.
Thank God It's Friday (1978) d. Robert Klane
From the Disco Drama of 54 to the over the top Disco Fun of 1978's Thank God It's Friday, this is a gem of the era that's as dated as it is hilarious. Camp reigns supreme here and from what I've been able to gather, this story of one night at The Zoo is more true to the actual Disco experience than a lot of other films set in the era. Made via a collaboration with Motown Productions and Casablanca Records (two titans of Disco), Thank God It's Friday is almost Robert Altman-esque in its depiction of multiple storylines over the course of the night. It stars a young Jeff Goldblum as Tony Di Marco, the club's owner, showing the inherent talent for comedy that's become his trademark. Joining him at The Zoo is Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman) as an out-of-towner who's just trying to have a good time and Donna Summer as a hungry young Disco singer. Summer is an absolute vision here, bringing a style and groove that's indicative of the times.
An Oscar winner for Best Original Song, Donna Summer's "Last Dance" is the true anthem of the late 70s. Featuring breezy music and lyrics, it's a bonafide classic, much like the film itself. This is one of the best of it's kind and a constant blast. Though ridiculous throughout, Thank God It's Friday is memorable for the one-liners ("You bet your sweet ass, you're sorry!"), the music, and the atmosphere. It's a whirlwind of good times and missed opportunities with characters intersecting at various points in the night. Everything comes to a head with a huge dance contest at the club where everyone gets their time to shine.
Thank God It's Friday is obviously a huge shift in tone from 54, with most of the situations being played for laughs and little to no homosexuality on display. What LGBTQ themes that are on display would be considered offensive to a modern mindset, and although that view isn't without merit, it's important to view this as a product of its time. That "invisible minority" was still very much a part of LGBTQ culture in mainstream films during the late 70s but that still doesn't diminish the impact of this camp classic. Unlike in 54, nothing here is drenched in doom and gloom, as this is pretty far from being considered a drama. It's simply a breezy 90 minutes filled with great music, hilarious situations, and a pretty good story, essentially the Disco version of Robert Altman's Nashville.
If you're able to track it down, I suggest you give it a shot; it can be a blast with like-minded friends and a good speaker system. Almost impossible to not get a kick out of, it also features one of the most entertaining opening title sequences I've ever seen.
The Disco era was one of many ups and downs, fun and serious drama, and although those days are long gone, we can always look back. We haven't always been portrayed in Hollywood in the most positive lights but even silver linings should be celebrated. True equality is constantly being impeded but as long we can find some joy here and there, the struggle will be worth it in the end.