Ahh, the 1970s. It was time of political upheaval, social expansion, and sexual liberation that shook America blind, encouraging the Average Joe to throw caution to the wind and poke as many semi-willing partners as humanly possible. Birth control? STDs? Basic requirements of physical attraction? Nonsense! These were mere roadblocks to the desired end game of the disco era: to obtain total and complete oneness with your genitalia. Take that '80s!
"American Swing" chronicles the history of the veritable ground zero for reckless/transcendent heterosexual lust: Plato's Retreat, located in the heart of New York City. Founded in 1977, this swingers club grew to be world famous in a stunningly short amount of time, fueled on a reputation of progressive sexual liberation and fish-in-barrel carnal delights that packed the house every night. The squirming, sweaty madness was overseen by Larry Levenson, an affable, mustachioed man who treasured his pulsating alternative lifestyle, wanting to share blissful sexual opportunities with his fellow man (and woman) in a safe and open environment. Few rules, no judgment, and bushy reproductive organs as far as the eye could see. Levenson opened the club with a dream of success. Plato's Retreat turned him into a king.
Directed by Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman, "American Swing" is a fairly conventional documentary concerning a man who was anything but. Summarizing the rise and fall of Plato's Retreat, the filmmakers take the obvious route: curiosity. What happened down there in the vast velvet catacombs of the club? Who were these magical people who welcomed the chance to open up sexually to complete strangers? How did Levenson build this empire with little more than word of mouth and local media appearances?
The film provides these answers through a colorful and thoughtful range of interviewees, including Buck Henry, Al Goldstein, Annie Sprinkle, Jamie Gillis, Melvin Van Peebles, and Ron Jeremy. The celebrities provide the wit and nostalgia for the club, with the real meat of the matter resting in the hands of ex-staff and former members, who imaginatively recall their adventures inside Plato's Retreat both with and without clothes. The filmmakers include a plethora of explicit photographs and news footage of Plato's heyday, but the pearls of wisdom are best extracted from the minds of those who stood on the front line, people who walked into the seminal fluid line of fire and lived to tell the tale. The wonders of Plato's Retreat are best preserved within these vivid, often jaw-dropping memories.
While asides with grotesque pool-centered monkey business and hilarious buffet recollections are a treat to hear (would you gobble food at a swingers club?), the focal point of the picture is Levenson and his Plato's Retreat reign from 1977 to the early 1980s, cut short by lousy business acumen and the iconic party pooper: AIDS. Levenson, who died in 1999, is represented in "American Swing" by his sons and those who adored his showmanship, and the film paints a persuasive portrait of a man who pulled off the impossible with incredible charm and support from an eager demographic, often at the cost of his personal life. Of course, 80 minutes is perhaps too long to tell Levenson's rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story, as Hart and Kaufman stretch the material to a point of exhaustion. "American Swing" would've made a killer short film. At feature length, the narrative buckles too often, reaching to unearth a profundity about Levenson's peculiar life that just isn't there.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), "American Swing" looks terrific on DVD. With sharp, crisp interview sequences and properly preserved news footage and photographic evidence, the image quality supports the film's kaleidoscopic intent wonderfully. Colors are rich and black levels are never a nuisance.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is more about a musical frontal assault than anything else. Interview audio is impressively presented and clearly defined, but the soundtrack provides the energy of the mix, sweeping the listener up with flashy disco hits. A flatter 2.0 mix is also available.
Spanish subtitles are included.
"Deleted Scenes" (27:04) offer even more stories from the interview participants, who take the discussion of the club's theatrics and idiosyncrasies further. Also of interest is a chance to hear a decidedly more honest summation of Levenson's salesman personality -- the finished product paints a slightly kinder image of the man. A Levenson media appearance on "In & Out with Dick" and a few more stories from Ron Jeremy round out the package.
Exploring the various personalities and, well, bodies who allowed Plato's Retreat to change their lives, "American Swing" finds a comfort zone of scandal and stupefaction the filmmakers mine expertly. A larger portrait of psychology is missing here, but I'm uncertain if that was the goal. After all, soaking up the lascivious details of writhing bodies and starry-eyed reminiscence sells the ultimate majesty of Plato's Retreat quite vividly. Levenson's history almost gets in the way.
For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com