In a crowded steamy space in NYCâs Greenwich Village called the Loft, a daring DJ named Ricky Siano placed an album on a turntable and turned up the volume so a new kind of music would blare from the speakers and enticed all in attendance to shake their booties. The year was 1971 and the Loft of a gay bar. It would be another three years before that genre was named. During the ensuing decade disco would have its highs, a year when record sales topped four billion dollars, and lows, a nasty event in Chicago called Disco Demolition, but disco would forever have special meaning to the gay men who wrote, produced, performed, spun, and absorbed in many ways the music that enticed them out of the closet and onto the dance floor.
Canadian directorâs ãThe Secret Disco Revolutionâ tells the story of a musical genre that some consider fad and others, as the filmâs title suggest, a revolution, by imaging the Masterminds, a foxy woman, an powerful African-American man, and a hunky gay dude, who represent those once oppressed groups that found power as the creative and consumer force behind disco. Soon Donna Summer would explore female ecstasy with ãLove To Love You Baby,ä a nearly 20 minute song, big, black and beautiful Barry White would do the same with ãCanât Get Enough of Your Love Babyä and gay men would purchase millions of the ã12 singles that they discovered on the dance floor while discovering their community.
Alice Echols and Peter Shapiro, authors of well-researched books about disco, ãHot Stuff: and ãTurn the Beat Aroundä respectively, offer real insight about discoâs place in American society and even its political important. They agree that disco had something important to say, all accompanied by that infectious four-four beat. At first ignored by record companies, the musical press, and radio DJs, disco flourished in gay clubs, black bars, and on small independent labels, on of which was run by a black woman, a first in the business. One popular club song Gloria Gaynorâs ãNever Can Say Goodbyeä sold 20,000 copies in New York alone, without radio play or any other promotional support. Another first.
In 1973, the guys at Casablanca Records took notice and would become discoâs biggest supporters and the future home of the Village People, Donna Summer, and a full rooster of artists. By 1975 ãThe Hustleä was released and disco, like many musical genres before it, enjoyed a dance craze. In 1976, ãSaturday Night Feverä was released and the power of disco could not be denied. The film is superb, a wonderful story of working class toughs who escape their dreary lives at the local disco. Also along the way, one of the racist, homophobic, sexist men evolves into a man who can actually befriend a woman. Disco was everywhere and there was no denying its power and some believe its message.
The Village People was created by Frenchman Jacques Molrali, a gay producer whose idea to put a group together was sparked by the macho images he saw embraced by gay men in Greenwich Village. Most of the five members were gay, but as they took off in 1977 they were cagy about their sexuality. Three of the five would later come out, two would die of AIDS, leatherman Glenn Hughes and construction worker David Hodo, as would Morali. More on this topic later. They would become one of discoâs biggest sensations, with a slew of hits, many of which are still popular today. ãYMCAä is actually played in ballparks nationwide. When first released the group was subversive, exposing gay life to a mostly clueless audience. The Pentagon even hired them to perform ãIn the Navyä as part of a recruitment campaign. Eventually someone wised up and the campaign was scrapped.
Every wanted to ride the disco bandwagon to success or continued sccess. Rockers like Rod Stewart (ãDo You Think Iâm Sexy?) and the Rolling Stones(ãMiss Youä) released disco hits are versions of their songs. Ethel Merman camped it up on a disco album. One hit wonders were many and crap like ãDisco Duckä had radio DJs, mostly straight rockers, up in arms. A 1979 Newsweek cover featured Summer on a cover that proclaimed ãDisco Takes Over.ä Uh-oh. A DJ in Chicago who was recently fired when his station switched to a pop and disco format started the Disco Sucks campaign, which culminated in the destruction of thousands of disco albums on the field of Comisky Park. 70,000 people were in attendance.
No disco didnât die that day, but it certainly was stopped in its tracks. The backlash was epic and some say fueled by homophobia. A few months later, Chicâs delightful disco song ãGood Timesä was bumped by the Knackâs ãMy Sharonaä and New Wave was ushered in as the music sensation. Disco, now labeled as dance or even hip-hop, lives on and its retro appeal is undeniable. The documentary gives authors, recording artists, producers, DJs and others a chance to remember a musical genre, sometimes with joy, but in some cases with bitterness. For some their would be no escaping their disco past Some would embrace it and celebrate it with adoring fans.
Director Jamie Kastner decided to exclude the impact that AIDS had on disco. Yes, disco had reached its peak and was on the decline, when the crisis took hold, but far too many disco pioneers – San Franciscoâs Sylvester, prolific songwriters and recording artists Paul Jabara and Dan Hartman, as well as those Village People already mentioned ö to ignore the subject. Also, troubling is the interview with the few surviving and new Village People, who struggling to book gigs with a mostly straight audience, deny their queer identity, their place in LGBT history. The very out Randy Jones, the cowboy, remains mostly silent during the interview.
Despite this flaw ãThe Secret Disco Revolutionä is a pleasant shuffle down memory lane, which is enhanced by its wall-to-wall soundtrack of disco hits ö the good, the bad, and the ugly. Itâs always nice to hear from artists of decades gone by, like Thelma Houston, Anita Pointer, and K.C. even without his Sunshine Band, but it would be nice if they were a bit more introspective. Perhaps not enough time has passed for folks to recognize that disco may have meant something more than boogying the night away. Weâll leave that to the scholars.
ãThe Sectret Disco Revolutionä will be shown Saturday, June 29 at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco, as part of Framelin37 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. For more information go to: www.frameline.org.