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Disco: Spinning the Story
So it's relatively shocking that the two biggest musical forces in the 70s came from decided outside influences. Punk was born in the garage rock of the previous era fused to the dying remnants of social rebellion. It would be decades before pop culture would completely embrace the genre, but in the heart of Manhattan, the movement was making gains. A directly polar opposite ideal to DIY music made fast and cheap was also on the rise, finding its footing in the increasing influence of gay rights on the social fabric. Indeed, many of community's concepts were coming out of the closet faster than those who felt newly liberated. Along with their standing came one of their passions - dance music. Disco, a shortened version of the French word for "record collection" (discothèque) would soon be the prominent musical format in both clubs and the pop charts.
Passport Video is lifting the veil of ignorance off this dense subject area to present Disco: Spinning the Story. And while some of the conclusions it draws are questionable at best, this is still a fine showcase of how the dance floor dominated the media for the better part of a decade.
Tracing the dance genre from its musical roots in funk and soul to its social starting points as part of European and gay club culture, Passport Video's incredibly interesting documentary Disco: Spinning the Story does a decent job of presenting the history of what is arguably the most hated style of music of the last 40 years. While nostalgia and time have lessened the blow of the big beat sound, there's no denying that, for a while at least, no one was pining disco's demise. It was the sound of excess and malaise, of cosmopolitan cool and cultural inertia. Certainly some talented people plied their trade in the defense of dance, but vitriol was usually the response to any real discussion of the sound. Only an idiot can deny the impact on music of such seminal artists as Giorgio Moroder (and his diva discovery, Donna Summer) the Village People (both visually and politically) and the reconfigured Bee Gees (who ditched phony Beatlemania for their own 'beat').
Some sections of this historical overview are very well done. Explaining the format's heredity, its connection to the work of James Brown, George "Parliament/Funkadelic" Clinton and the incredibly influential duo of Motown and Philly Soul, give us the necessary background to understand how R&B went uptown. Interviews with music writers and important players in the scene help to flesh out the foundation. Disco: Spinning the Story even offers up a definitive sonic starting point - George McCrae's 1974 smash "Rock Your Baby". Arguing that this, along with 1975's "The Hustle" by Van McCoy set the stage for the entire dance revolution, it is nice to see the filmmakers acknowledge such other important tracks as The Hughes Corporation's "Rock the Boat" and Gloria Gaynor's cover of "Never Can Say Goodbye as part of the genre's decisive facets. Indeed, a great many one hit wonders helped craft the overall disco sound, and at least Spinning the Sound concedes their contribution. It doesn't mention them all, but it tries to be as comprehensive as possible.
Another valuable service the documentary delivers is the downplaying of such obvious, overplayed tracks as Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs". To hear many pundits tell it, both of these "mainstream" tracks from traditionally non-disco artists were instrumental in broadening the genre's pop appeal. Frankly, that is foolish. Each track could be considered a coattail entry, something trading on an already fashionable idea. While Macca isn't even mentioned, the Blondie bit here is more or less a throwaway, giving the track its due and then digging into meatier subject areas (Debbie Harry's solo shot, the America Gigolo theme "Call Me" is also avoided).
This does not mean that Spinning the Story is always so objective. Sometimes, this showcase can go a bit overboard in its explicit praise. The Trammps did release one of the classic songs of the era, the terrific toe tapper "Disco Inferno". But the interviews make this tune out to be the genre's Sgt Peppers, the greatest work of beat, brass and balls ever created. It is a good tune, but it's not the godsend Spinning the Story makes it out to be. To give them more face time than the far more influential Chic seems insane (Rodgers and the gang do eventually get a good mention or two).
Where Spinning the Story comes up short is in two important areas. First, the interviews are rather thin, consisting of soundbites and assertions without a lot of context. There are also obvious omissions; individuals like Donna Summer and James Brown, who are barely visible. Other artists important to the era - Vickie Sue Robinson, Sylvester, Silver Connection, etc. - are never even discussed. Of course, many of the musicians mentioned have unfortunately passed on, but to leave them out completely is a sin. They were as important, or even more so, than Ace Frehley or some Internet scholar ever was. The other questionable aspect is the ending. Using Kiss' "I Was Made for Loving You" as an extreme exclamation point for the genre's increasing crassness (even though Gloria Gaynor's classic track "I Will Survive" is often cited as disco's death knell), the documentary then dives into one of the most insane arguments ever crafted as to why disco died.
Starting with the riot that ensued after the misguided Disco Demolition by Chicago radio disc jockey Steve Dahl (which took place during the break in a 1979 White Sox baseball double header), everyone in Spinning the Sound argues that disco was destroyed by racism. That's right, outright prejudice finally silenced the beat. It was not the increasingly substandard product being pushed, the corporate infiltration of the genre, or the waning cultural significance, but white America's hatred of gay and black people that finally forced disco off the cultural landscape. While it may sound like a stretch, this is the argument fostered over and over again by this film. In reality, such an argument seems blatantly ridiculous, since money controls the marketplace, not the whims of a less than organized majority. Studio 54 (given its due as part of this project) was nothing but rich, influential people? Was it really their desire to destroy their hedonistic hangout, leading to disco's death, or did the ingestion of huge quantities of cocaine have something to do with the music's eventual murder. It's no surprise then that Spinning the Sound never completely addresses the narcotic angle. It's too obvious an answer.
Also, when someone is attacking a social element, they usually have something they want to replace it with. But in the case of this music, Spinning the Sound never successfully argues for what was waiting in the wings. Disco was eventually usurped by a montage of musical forms: soul, rock, new wave, beach, and something fresh and innovative known as rap. What the documentary fails to acknowledge is that rap was becoming the new calling card for the urban audience. Who wanted to hear "Let's All Chant" when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" spoke more eloquently of the minority plight? Finally, if white America wanted disco dead, why is hip-hop so popular today? Where is the backlash now? The media embraced both (one of the best parts of Spinning the Sound is the look back at some of the disco-based programming of the era), but only the 70s was successful in its sonic suppression? Right.
These issues aside, Disco: Spinning the Sound is still a wonderful primer on the music that defined the 70s. It sets up its participants, lets many of them speak for themselves, and never once loses sight of the story it wants to tell by wandering off onto a tangential idea. Certainly once the era explodes the approach becomes incredibly scattershot. It would truly be impossible to discuss every act that was influential, either in the mainstream or the underground, during the genre's rise to fame. So such a wide canvas is perfectly fine. Like it or not, disco did help shape a certain cultural shift in the post-60s sensibility in America. Thankfully, this DVD is not just a celebration, but also an explanation and an examination of how we suddenly stopped caring about politics and personal problems to just get down to shake our booties out on the dance floor.
The multimedia approach to the subject matter means we get all manner of source material - film, video, archival footage and newly created interviews - as part of this presentation. Still, Passport Video offers a very good 1.33:1 full frame image that is surprisingly clean and clear. The older elements do look bad, but they also amplify the nostalgic feel to the entire project. The modern sequences are shot with care, making artists like Gloria Gaynor look terrific, as well as timeless. Overall, this is a professional DVD transfer with the only flaws coming from the age of the ancient information employed.
There is nothing much to discuss from a sonic standpoint when it comes to disco. Get yourself a 4/4 beat, a lot of fancy percussion, some simple bass lines and a few instrumental flourishes and you've got a standard mid-70s dance track. As a result, there is no home theater quality Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the influential songs presented as part of Spinning the Story. Instead, we get aural aspects that are all over the map. Some of the tunes are offered in their original recorded format, while others are taken from horribly tinny TV appearances or bad concert clips. They all do end up sounding acceptable when processed through the 2.0 stereo provided here. The conversations are also excellent, easy to understand and consistently decipherable.
While it doesn't expand our knowledge of the genre with the added features presented on this DVD, Passport at least tries to flesh out this feature. We are treated to two TV appearances by Gloria Gaynor, one each for the hits "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "I Will Survive". Then there are three interview outtakes that really add very little to our understanding of the disco saga. While it's nice that the disc is not bare bones, better contextual features would have included a discography or a collection of mini-bios of the bands/artists featured. Since the film didn't have time to fill in the blanks factually, the digital format is the place to expand our understanding. Passport misses a great opportunity here.
Someone once said that it is the song, not a certain style or sound, that is timeless. Disco is the perfect illustration of this musical missive. While many of the acts of the era seem like novelty nothings in light of our far more potent post-millennial mindset, the reality is that there were lots of great tunes that came out of the dance dynamic. Say what you will about the Brother's Gibb, but "Jive Talking" and "Staying Alive" are classic tracks. Thelma Houston's version of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes "Don't Leave Me This Way" is a brazen boogie anthem. Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra and M.F.S.B. proved that it took instrumentation as much as inspiration to create great music. And just like the documentary says, no one can be unhappy listening to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, especially when "Get Down Tonight" starts it's cowbell call to arms. Laugh at the fashions or cringe at some of the commercial crossover attempts ("Disco Duck"? Disco-NO!) but, for a while, disco defined us. Thanks to Passport Video, Spinning the Sound helps to describe and defend the genre, and it truly succeeds.
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