Film Review: The Secret Disco Revolution

This subject—although fun and fascinating—has been covered before and much better than in this doc, which repeatedly shoots itself in its dancing feet with bad choices.

A definite shine comes into the eyes of anyone who was there and can recall the 1970s heyday of disco. Sure, there were those hard-core rockers who loathed the genre and staged all those hate-filled, not so subtly homophobic and racist demonstrations against it, but who gives a flying platform shoe for any of them? Emerging from underground gay and black dance clubs, what began as a cult, favored by discerning lovers of a certain style and rhythm, turned into a global fever. For better, but probably for worse, disco dominated the music industry. But, if indeed you were there and enslaved by it, the excitement and thrill of that time may perhaps be unsurpassed in your lifetime. This writer particularly recalls being in a Manhattan record store when Donna Summer’s just-released “Spring Affair” was playing and it seemed the entire store, not to mention the entire city, was ecstatically bopping along to its percolating beat. And then Studio 54 opened, and the whole world was bewitched.

This phenomenon has already been extensively explored, written about and documented, so The Secret Disco Revolution feels more than a tad passé, unlike disco itself, which has stubbornly refused to die. Its classics are still being heard and their influence today in the latest reincarnations of hip-hop and club tracks is inescapable. But the lowest forms of disco are often cheesy, and so is Jamie Kastner’s film.

Let’s start with a tacky-sounding narrator (Peter Keleghan) who regularly casts an unfortunate aural pall over the festivities, starting with the cornball sociological observation (over vintage footage of disco dancers): “On closer examination, this is a subtle form of training: This polyester is a uniform and all this apparently random movement is, in fact, the formation of a secret army. Now at last we can see underneath disco’s seemingly vapid veneer the mass liberation of gays, blacks and women from the clutches of a conservative, rock-dominated world.” (Although there is some truth contained there, you instinctively recoil.)

Despite an impressive array of important interviewees (Gloria Gaynor, Evelyn “Champagne” King, The Trammps, pioneering DJs Tom Moulton and Nicky Siano, Studio 54 diva Carmen D’Allesio and, Lord love ’em, The Village People), again and again, throughout the film, the narrator and unfortunate directorial choices produce a vapidity akin to that which disco was accused of by its detractors. Not helping matters in the least is the irritating writer and professor Alice Echols, who’s somehow been placed in a position of pontificating authority here, with noxious pronouncements like “Look at [Donna Summer’s song] “Love to Love You Baby,” which is no less than a feminist critique of the three-minute orgasm.” And again you recoil, instead of rushing in madly to join this party.

Those survivor interviews—when not too badly interrupted by the all the auteurial Velveeta—provide the main interest, and The Village People are particularly amusing, recounting their most unlikely rise to fame and even more unlikely staying power (like roaches and Cher). But, like the others, they’ve told their story publicly before in far more skillfully rendered circumstances, without Echols making the ridiculous observation that with them, for the first time, gays were presented as macho and manly, as we see footage of the group’s Leather Man, looking truly anything but.