The surviving notion regarding disco is that it sucked. And disco’s legacy has certainly suffered from the events at Comiskey Park, a singing (?) duck, and that one song by the Bee Gees. But disco also provided an outlet for the expression of gays, blacks, and women (as well as some fuckin’ righteous tunes). While its reign was brief — disco only gained popularity in the mid-70s and was dead before the 80s — its cultural impact has been massive. At its best it was progressive, liberating, and triumphant; at its worst, gaudy and vapid. More so than other contemporary genres, disco was a scene; remembered as much today for the excess, partying, dancing, drugs, and fashion as it is for the music. What director Jamie Kastner’s documentary The Secret Disco Revolution presumes, and spends most of its running time examining, is the notion that disco was more than just a scene: it was a movement.
The film has a clear and effective structure, utilizing a campy representative of gays, blacks, and women in the form of “The Masterminds” — three characters used in re-enactments to visualize the creation and implementation of the disco revolution. The Masterminds decide on an uprising to free gays, blacks, and women from oppression; settle on disco as the method to do it; and create a manifesto. From here, the doc very straightforwardly traces the history of disco from its early underground club roots to its eventual stagnation.
Disco mirrored the increased desire for women’s sexual pleasure in the “era of the female orgasm,” with some of the first instances of extended-length pop songs. Songs like Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” which clocks in at 17 minutes, were lengthened to encourage longer nocturnal activities with the hopes of reaching the elusive female climax. Historian and author Alice Echols says songs like this are “the musical expression of the feminine critique of three-minute sex.”
Other songs (most memorably by the Village People) seem to celebrate gay culture. There is a great scene in the middle of the film concerning the group’s and their use of double entendre. Writer and producer Henri Belolo claims that he and Jacques Morali wrote Village People songs to be subversive and embrace gay culture because Morali himself was gay. Members of the group maintain that the songs were written sincerely and in order to compensate for their ridiculousness, the group turned the songs into a camp act. There seems to be a desire to distance themselves from the aspects of disco so easily mocked today, yet neither party attributes any political purpose to the music.
Disco is not above critique, however, and the documentary provides more than just a one-sided glorification of the period. The velvet rope culture of Studio 54 resulted in excluding people from the party, which ran counter to the ideals Kastner puts forth for disco. By the time the record companies controlled disco, they relied on “whitening” black music to create crossover hits. This diluted the influence of a culture on a genre in which it was a founding member. And because disco was a producer-driven genre, many of the artists were packaged and treated like products, and then abandoned for newer models. These are the acts that today are relegated to performing on cruise ships, at casinos, and after minor league baseball games. They know that if they don’t perform their 40 year-old hits, they won’t get gigs. By presenting interviews with some of these artists, The Secret Disco Revolution gives some sobering humanity to a genre typically perceived as vain.
But perhaps the most important scene in the whole film is the last, in which Kastner asks his subjects if they think disco was a form of protest. They unanimously answer “no,” denying any political motivations to the music. It’s a brave move by a filmmaker to spend 90 minutes proving a point only to refute it at the end. It’s unclear whether this means viewing disco as protest is overly academic, if Kastner is simply a revisionist, or if it’s just supposed to be funny. But even seemingly apolitical scenes can still have political implications. And besides, a lack of awareness amongst the participants does not negate the strides made by the movement. With The Secret Disco Revolution, Kastner produces an effective attempt to re-imagine a maligned scene into a righteous movement, in the process rewriting history and ensuring that a more dignified disco legacy stays alive.