This and the next will be the last songbook posts on pop-music movies for a while. Despite my doing five(!) posts on ALMOST FAMOUS, two on the SCHOOL OF ROCK, and an epic one on THE DOORS, I do think that among my list of pop-music films, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is the standout in terms of sheer cinematic achievement, with only AMERICAN GRAFFITI giving it a run for the money. And in terms of the more literary sort of cinematic achievement, no film on the list can touch it. That perhaps points to why Stillman wound up also producing a quirky “novelization” of it, and why Peter Lawler’s essay on the film(available here) is IMO his very best film-analysis.
(Stillman’s latest film, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, is now out on video. I propose we all try to view it by mid-November, and then share our thoughts here. It’s the strangest bird of the Stillman films, and if any readers have a grand theory of how to interpret that will exceed the capacity of our comments section, email Peter at Berry College, and he’ll fwd your stuff to me.)
Lawler’s essay shows how a consideration of religion, nature, and grace lies at the heart of LAST DAYS. What I’m going to concentrate on here are simply two of its music-scene aspects:
1) Classic 70s Disco as a “Movement.” (this post)
2) The Aristocratic Nature of the “Club.” (this and the next one)
When the Josh character declares his allegiance to the “disco movement,” his friend Tom says in disbelief, “it’s a movement?” Stillman acknowledges that it seems odd to consider it this way. Folk, hippie rock, punk rock–these really were considered movements by many of their participants, whereas 70s disco was considered by most to simply be a fad. But even fads can have “way of life” ideas behind them–and some participants will be able, like Stillman, to articulate these. Stillman after all was there—he frequented the famous NYC disco clubs like Studio 54. Through certain statements, especially those made by the earnest Josh character, and the bitchy Charlotte character, we are given his take on how disco could be regarded as a movement.
Just as Jimmy Steinway is getting attracted to Charlotte, and thus gratuitously agreeing with whatever she says, we get her pronouncement that
…before Disco, at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, this country was a dancing WASTELAND. You know the ‘Woodstock Generation’ of the 1960s, who were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.
The context, and the fact that we already know that Charlotte is given to making hurtful and outrageous statements with absolute confidence, indicate that Stillman does not entirely agree. He surely has some awareness that the hippies hoped that their psychedelic ballrooms and free-form music would unleash the dance as never before. He surely knows that only a few years before that, the craze for the twist had broke the previous lock couple-centered dances had had on social dancing, unleashing a whole slew of stand-alone steps. (Note–that twist documentary I link to is well worth whatever trouble it might be to see.) There is plenty to say about how that break heralded sexual and expressive individualism, but in light of the LAST DAYS interest in the tensions between “group social life” and “ferocious pairing off,” we should also compare the dominance of couple-centered dances from the waltz(?) up until the twist, to the earlier more community-oriented line-type dances of Jane Austen’s novels or of the contra and square dancing traditions.
My own sense is that the early-to-mid 60s embrace of R+B dance got overdone–as best exemplified by the way England’s mods turned to amphetamines to keep them engaged in the non-stop-dancin’ their scene championed–and thus eventually provoked a reactive turn to heaviness(hard-rock, art rock), relaxed rural-ness(country-rock), and even outright mellowness (James Taylor and co.). If Stillman would agree with this, I’m sure he would add that the mid-60s problem was not simply too much dance, but especially, an attitude that increasingly sought to push things into Dionysian dance. The Morrison-esque collective frenzies of the late 60s required more than acid and amplification. Dance-wise they were built upon the likes of the twist and the mashed potato–steps like Jim’s Shaman-ic moves were simply added on top. Everyone got groovin’ in the streets, the parks, and the love-ins, and yet this late 60s crescendo of dance somehow nearly…killed it, with an ugly aftermath of “Iron Man” on one hand, “You’ve Got A Friend” on the other, and way too many people either too conceited or wasted to cha cha cha.
I mention the Cha-Cha to point to the fact that LAST DAYS is not the only Stillman film to point to this late-60s to mid-70s dance-floor wasteland. Because Audrey Rouget, the darling and heroine of METROPOLITAN, is noticed attending the LAST DAYS Club when she is in her late 20s or early 30s, we can date METROPOLITAN pretty precisely to about 10-12 years before 1980(the novelization makes this even clearer). So the attractions of its debutante balls become all the more apparent: in a desert of stoned sloppiness and Revolution-ary seriousness, those balls provided an oasis of dance, class, and intelligent frivolity. To embrace the likes of the Cha-Cha was to defend civilization, and fun.
Stillman’s films typically feature a young group gathering around, and courting via, unassuming and often form-dominated dance music. In BARCELONA he is for the “low” limbo (and 70s disco) as opposed to the modern jazz embraced by the Barcelona hipster set(Fred says, “My jazz rule is, if you can’t dance to it, you don’t want to know about it!”), in METROPOLITAN he is for the “ridiculous” Cha-Cha and most especially the highly-organized dances and rituals of the debutante ball scene, and in his latest, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, he is for the collegiate damsels prescribing tap and Astaire for depression, and trying to start their own Latin dance craze. All this is linked at the hip with the fact that his films are consistently for the couple and group social life.
So despite Charlotte’s ignorance of dance history and her general trait of being too harsh, Stillman thinks that her reaction to the early 70s situation is a basically correct. We know this because we also hear this line of thinking from Josh. He says to Tom that what is great about the disco club is that it’s a place where, when one’s life situation makes one ready for it (in male terms particularly, economically established enough to court), there is a place to go for dancing, cocktails, and conversation. He adds that only a few years before, and for some time, there was a shocking lack of this, a social lack. Tom’s reaction indicates his complete agreement, his sharing the feeling that something about that time was grievously impoverished and well, lonely.
Songbook readers know I have a lot of sympathy with this. While I do get interested in Dylan, hippies, Bowie, baroque-rock, and even some art rock, I am overall not a fan of the turn to seriousness in our pop music, whose first big wave came in 1966-1975, especially insofar as it snuffed out what was best in the Afro-American tradition. Disco taken as a movement was the way Stillman and his peers reacted to this in the 70s, whereas “pro-hop” new wave and the more underground retro rock n’ roll movement was the way I and some of my peers reacted to it in the 80s.
But Stillman’s movement was far more interesting socially. The garage and rockabilly scenes of the 80s were tiny underground affairs. The ska revival of the same time was only slightly more successful. More promisingly, there was a moment with the mid-to-late 90s swing revival where it was plausible to speak of hopes for a rebirth of grown-up culture, as Mark Gauvreau Judge did with this book in 2000, but it passed.
The swing revival did have the potential to make a widespread impact, as its lasting legacy in giving ball-room dancing a boost attests, but it was a far more ambitious idea than those other revivals, since for it to really work you needed a) jazz-musician participation, b) bigger bands, and perhaps even c) supper-club like venues. Alas, the jazz musicians balked (with one notable exception) at the most golden opportunity to reconnect with popular audiences ever handed them, and so they left the music to cliché-mongers like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Alas, as has been the case from the late 40s on, the economics of sustaining large dance orchestras are usually no longer workable. And alas, the social patterns that made the classy supper-club work from 1910-1970 no longer have much strength.
The disco movement, however, really achieved a rebirth of grown-up dance-centered culture on a widespread and economically viable level. Something somewhat like the old supper clubs, or Rick’s Café Americana, was recreated with “The Club,” which yes, was perhaps only perfected in Manhattan, but which was imitated world-wide. It is telling that one criticism Stillman’s film received with respect to “historical accuracy” was there being places in his film’s Club for conversation, when the actual disco was generally too loud for this; Stillman does not agree with this point entirely—in his recollection the best NYC Clubs did provide corners for conversation–but he does admit that his Club pushes things more in this direction, the healthy direction.
Josh also says that what’s great about the club is that “everyone” is there: everyone you know, and everyone you don’t but want to. So that’s an aristocratic sense of “everyone”—it is a select crowd, a crowd not too massive or general to keep you from meeting the interesting people you’d like to, and, a crowd that contains your crowd.
This set of interesting people includes more gays and blacks than the typical crowd, reflecting the origins of the disco music and scene, but as Stillman emphasizes, it also includes a wider spectrum of ages than you associate with rock. Disco is classy enough, or smoothly bland enough(if you want to be critical), that it makes sense for the (gasp) over-thirty crowd to be there dancing to it. It is not a youth-movement thing, a generational identity thing. So the Club is a place where you might make interesting and useful connections with the sorts of older folks who want to remain hip to the scene. You might get to talk with Audrey Rouget, who has become a key figure in publishing. You might meet, on a less heady but probably more useful level, the businessman Ted from BARCELONA. This, Stillman correctly thinks, is far more natural than the way rock’s social pattern tends to draw sharp generational boundaries. The conversational and multi-generational Club is more natural to us, being the political animals we are with all that implies, than the hippie frenzy or the rock mosh-pit, or the typical overwhelm-the-senses dance club of today. Stillman is alive to the orgiastic possibilities of the disco—in one scene that “your body, my body, everybody” song is playing, and it’s clear that not a few of the Club’s patrons gay and straight would regard the more intense dance clubs of today as an improvement, but his own Club makes the more social pleasures available alongside the more primal ones.
So one way the Club is aristocratic in that you might socialize with superior and better-connected people. But there is another aspect of the disco movement that was more brashly and theatrically aristocratic: the emphasis on all things chic. This began, I suspect, as a counter-reaction among blacks to certain earthy stylistic imperatives associated with the idea of funk. Blacks have typically always had, as Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray emphasize, a greater interest in steppin’ out Saturday Night in a puttin’-on-the-Ritz way than most whites. Dressin’ to the nines and drivin’ a Cadillac. I don’t know the p’s and q’s of how this played out in the development of the disco sound, but it seems fairly plain that putting string sections on top of funk bass lines was a way some blacks had of reasserting this old pattern of classiness and aspiration against the 70s-emphasis on Black Power solidarity with the ghetto masses and George Clinton-esque funk-freakiness. They wanted to insist that one could be funky and classy, Afro and affluent, rooted in the Harlem uptown but movin’ and shakin’ things downtown, etc. But as with most reactions, things went further than restoring balance. Sister Sledge praises “The Greatest Dancer” with a listing of the designer brands he is wearing: He wears the finest clothes, the best designers heaven knows, from his head down to his toes… Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci… The bridge to an 80s embrace of fashionista materialism a la Madonna and co., is plain to see. This is the side of the aristocratic that we abhor—the emphasis that both the nouveau riche and the old-line families might put upon surface indications of aristocratic quality, and the idea that one might be excluded simply because one is not wearing the right clothes.
But one must not let one’s correct hatred of all forms of surface determination of the aristocratic, which all result in an aristocratic class with many undeserving members, delude one about the initially natural origins of those determinations. There are sound reasons for thinking the children of two remarkably excellent humans will have greater genetic and educational chances than most to become remarkably excellent themselves. Associating aristocratic status with those who have good bloodlines is not per se irrational. Nor is, I’m afraid to say, doing so on the basis of how a person dresses and presents herself. Now political situations in which it is more manageable to skip the association and investigation, and simply outright award that status to those with noble blood, have obviously been the more typical ones in human history. Similarly, it might be that the Club has no better way to award entry into its little aristocracy-for-a-night than to make snap intuition-al judgments that inevitably, are heavily based on appearances.
So before we praise the Disco Movement’s archetypal Club any more, we need to grapple with the fact that we don’t know for certain whether we would be impressive enough to get in the door.