Saturday night forever: the best disco movies ride again

Disco Ball

Titled after Donna Summer’s deliciously suggestive dance floor hit from 1979, Dim All the Lights: Disco and the Movies is a tightly curated repertory programme of disco-inspired cinema running at New York’s Metrograph from 5 to 11 August.

This thematically and stylistically wide-ranging collection of films reaches well above and beyond the widespread perception of the disco scene as a gaudy, lycra-slathered vessel for peppy escapism to explore its complicated relationship to gender, race, sexuality and memory. That’s not to say it ignores disco’s main draw: the music. Whether it’s Summer’s unbound performance of Last Dance in the LA-set rarity Thank God its Friday (1978), or John Travolta, as white-suited jiver Tony Manero, tearing it up to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive in the grittier-than-you-might remember Saturday Night Fever (1978).

The centrepiece of and inspiration for the series is the new release of Derek Jarman’s documentary Will You Dance With Me?, which was shot in 1984 and remained unseen until it was unearthed in 2014, some 20 years after the director’s death. What Jarman captured doubles as an absorbing, evocative period piece. The footage was originally intended as a location test for a forthcoming film to be directed by Jarman’s friend Ron Peck, who’d debuted in 1978 with the quietly landmark film Nighthawks, which also screens here and was one of the first films to depict gay life in a non-sensationalist way.

Shot on an Olympus camcorder at Benjy’s nightclub in east London, Will You Dance With Me? is a grab bag of poses, halting chatter, dancing of unmistakable ambition but questionable quality, and (frequently stymied) attempts to get more than a smattering of people on the dance floor at any one point while the upbeat DJ spins an esoteric selection featuring Soul Sonic Force and the Pointer Sisters.

The series is curated by Melissa Anderson, who is also a film critic for the Village Voice, and Amélie Garin-Davet. Anderson first saw Will You Dance With Me? in the spring of 2015, and was seduced by its charms. “I can’t think of another film, whether fiction or nonfiction, that so perfectly captures the flow of a night at a queer club,” she tells me via email. “The lulls and desultory conversation, the flirting and cruising, the anticipation of adventure (erotic or otherwise), the ecstasy of being one among many lost in the music.”

Meanwhile, in the light of the recent homophobic shooting of patrons at Florida’s Pulse nightclub, Will You Dance With Me? carries an extra, poignant charge. It’s a smeary, neon-streaked vision of a blessed safe space in all its placid mundanity, its flickering wavelengths of romantic hope and chance. Anderson concurs, citing the gay American writer Frank O’Hara: “Almost 30 years before Jarman shot Will You Dance with Me?, O’Hara beautifully illuminated the thrill and abandon of dancing in a gay bar in his 1955 poem At the Old Place. The refrain of the penultimate stanza is “(It’s heaven!)” – a belief that many films in this retrospective bear out.”

The roots of such dreams are explored in Joesph Lovett’s stylish and informative documentary Gay Sex in the 70s, which is composed of revealing first-person accounts of New York in the post-Stonewall, pre-Aids era. A bouncing disco soundtrack is the binding agent for myriad stories of wild times on the West Side piers, the Roman baths, and fabled New York dance spots like the Loft and Paradise Garage. One of the very best films in the programme is Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which documents the musician’s immersion into the disco scene.

Even though darkness is very much on the programme’s agenda (see the inclusion of bleak psychological dramas Klute and Looking For Mr Goodbar), Dim All The Lights pointedly does not include William Friedkin’s salacious Cruising (1980). This sordid S&M serial killer-thriller starring a sweaty, leather-chapped Al Pacino still rankles for its curtain-twitching pathologising of homosexuality. It does, however, find space for Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop the Music, an uproariously camp, massively fictionalised origin story of disco titans the Village People. The film, which incidentally edged out Cruising for the title of Worst Picture at the 1980 Golden Raspberry awards, features an early turn from Caitlyn Jenner, as a buttoned-up lawyer who ends up switching the office and polyester suit for the dance floor and a fetching denim shorts and crop top combo: an indelible image.

I ask Anderson how she sees the diverse slate of films tying together. “They reflect the utopian promise of disco during a decade – the 1970s – that was defined by social and political advancements for marginalized groups,” she says. “Disco, as Alice Echols points out in her excellent 2010 study, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, not only integrated nightlife among races, but also played an enormous role in fostering the new relationship gay men had to public space, now that they were no longer prohibited from dancing together.”

Collectively, the films assume an affective, unexpectedly stately power: a multicultural, multi-gendered blast of inclusivity, and the excavation of a hope-filled past.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ashley Clark, for theguardian.com on Friday 5th August 2016 23.12 Europe/London

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