Ready to get down and boogie? The excesses of the disco era get another going-through in the recent French-Canadian production Funkytown. Ugly polyester shirts, glitter balls, snorting coke off a model's tummy ... it's all here in a sprawling, multi-story format that calls to mind Boogie Nights mixed in with some torrid TV soap opera that might have played on a North-of-the-border equivalent of the CW.
Set in the years 1976-1980, Funkytown differs from many of the other disco-era dramas in exploring how the glamour and decadence of the music affected a specific group of people who worked and hung out at Montreal's hottest discotheque. The very Canadian-ness of the film becomes apparent right off the bat as English and French is spoken interchangeably, sometimes within the same sentence. The film's disco, The Starlight, is based on a real Quebec hotspot called The Limelight (it was even filmed in and around the same building). A few of the film's characters are modeled after true-life Canadian notables of the time as well, although they're simply used here as figureheads in what is ultimately a soapy melodrama.
For something that initially looks like a huge chunk of camp-o-rama, Funkytown actually turns out to be an ambitious and oddly affecting film. It doesn't score all the time - the filmmakers' attempt at drawing parallels between the fall of disco and Quebec's 1980 attempt at becoming a sovereign state don't come off as elegantly as they hoped, for one. However, the way the drama wallows in the characters' mostly dismal prospects winds up being very watchable and fun. Screenwriter Steve Galluccio and director Daniel Roby keep things moving at an agreeable pace, packing in enough intrigue-filled subplots in its two-plus hours to fill an entire season of a TV series. In my household, we watched this at the same time that the second season of the similarly implausible but addictive The L.A. Complex came to an exciting conclusion. They're both Canadian productions that take on a jaundiced attitude toward the glitz of showbiz. If you've got it, flaunt it, the film says. Be on guard for the leeches who want a piece of you, however. And if you no longer got it, get the hell outta the way.
The main players in Funkytown are a diverse group:
- Bastien Lavalée (Patrick Huard) - local celebrity, TV host and deejay Bastien serves as the main protagonist here, a well-known fixture for the aspiring disco kings and queens who gather nightly at the red-hot Starlight disco. The doughy yet still handsome Bastien is riding high in Funkytown's opening, but the family man's wandering eye and taste for dangerous substances will wreak havoc with disastrous consequences on his family and career.
- Gilles Lefebvre (Raymond Bouchard) - owner and chief operator of the Starlight, Gilles is also a record producer whose dance records get conveniently promoted in the club and on Bastien's TV show. A wealthy, cynical tastemaker, Gilles' headaches stem from the Canadian government imposing themselves on the club and the constant annoyance of his son, Daniel.
- Daniel Lefebvre (François Létourneau) - Gilles' milquetoast son, who runs the day-to-day operations at the Starlight. Daniel is in love with the club's secretary, who encourages him to stand up to his father's oppressive bullying.
- Jonathan Aaronson (Paul Doucet) - flamboyant personality who dishes dirt on Bastien's TV show, another Starlight star and an idol to the local scenesters who aspire to be in his social circle. The openly gay Jonathan takes a special interest in one such dancer, an Italian cutie named Tino.
- Adriana (Sarah Mutch) - a gorgeous model who captures Bastien's attention, eventually becoming his mistress. Dim yet ambitious Adriana snags an interviewing job on Bastien's TV show, but her real desire is to become a disco queen. Having no singing talent whatsoever might pose a problem, but the machinations of Bastien and Gilles help pull it off.
- Nicole (Jocelyne Zucco) - Adriana's coarse, tough-talking American agent. Nicole helps navigate Adriana's transition to disco stardom, which hits a snag when the real singer behind Nicole's record finds out that she's been duped.
- Tino DeiFiori (Justin Chatwin) - Young, smooth, and an excellent dancer, Tino burns up the dance floor with his partner and girlfiend, Tina (Romina D'Ugo). The duo have gotten in on Bastien's show by befriending Jonathan, a move that angers his disco-hating mother. Despite insisting that he's straight, Tino finds his way into Johathan's bed as well.
- Mimi (Genevieve Brouillette) - former singing star who has hit bad times. A desperate Mimi spends the last of her funds on a disco demo recording, only to be told by Gilles that French-language records don't sell (this comes moments before a younger, prettier French singer is introduced in the Starlight). Later on, Mimi serves as a mentor to an all-girl punk band.
Funkytown does a good job of capturing the freewheeling '70s, even though there are some serious mis-steps regarding period accuracy (it occurs most glaringly when iconic songs like "Funkytown" and "Bad Girls" appear in sections taking place years before those records were released). The production design and costuming are somewhat overdone - a forgivable flaw, since the film covers a scene where that "garish is better" aesthetic would fit in perfectly fine. Wolfe Video's DVD edition of the film plays up the film's soundtrack, which uses a few overlooked disco tunes such as "Daddy Cool" (Boney M.) and "Doctor's Orders" (Carol Douglas) to good effect. Unfortunately, at least half of the film's wall-to-wall disco is scored to re-recordings without the original artists, which contribute to the film's earnest charm.
Funkytown is one of those films where the (admittedly nice) cinematography got digitally color-enhanced during post-production, giving the film a constant honey yellow glow. While not exactly evocative of the '70s, the anamorphic, letterboxed image looks sharp and clean.
The DVD's soundtrack, available in either 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Surround, is a good and clean mix which gives a slight over-emphasis on the music. Dialogue is clear throughout, however, never overwhelmed by the thumping backdrop. Optional English subtitles are available as well, although disappointingly the film's English subtitles on the French-language parts are burned into the image and cannot be turned off.
Wolfe Video has supplied the DVD with only the film's theatrical trailer as a bonus, along with additional trailers for the company's other gay and lesbian-geared products.
The sprawling, fractured, overlong yet very watchable Funkytown chronicles the players, artists and hangers-on at Canada's most legendary dance club. The drama looks like a complete cheese-fest at first glance, but its cynical look at the dark side of showbiz has the same can't-look-away appeal as, say, Ethel Merman's disco album. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.