Review of “Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution” – a captivating music documentary filled with rich content.
After the chaos of recent years, the state of UK nightlife is precarious. It has been impacted by increased venue costs, a shortage of staff, financially-strained club-goers, and changes in behavior brought on by the pandemic. However, if there is anything that can reignite the desire to go out and dance, it’s Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution. This three-part documentary, co-produced with PBS, is a prime example of the high-quality music documentaries that the BBC consistently produces. It’s a treasure trove of information, complemented by an impeccable soundtrack, and delves into more than just the history of disco.
The initial installment explores the surge of homosexual establishments in New York City during the early 1970s, along with the emergence of a fresh sound, all tied together with a captivating social history. It doesn’t kick off with glitzy sequins and disco balls, but instead with demonstrations and activism as the 1960s gave way to a challenging new decade. As radio host Mark Riley (not to be confused with the other one) remarks, there was a rebellious attitude among many individuals, particularly younger generations. There were widespread demonstrations for peace and women’s rights, young men were burning their draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War, and members of the LGBTQ+ community were rioting at the Stonewall Inn.
According to DJ Nicky Siano, disco has a rich history, with two theories surrounding its origins. One suggests that the rise of gay liberation was a response to the strict rules in mafia-run gay bars that prohibited same-sex couples from dancing together. Siano, who is featured prominently in the film, argues that the events at Stonewall were sparked by the act of dancing.
The text reveals the financial struggles in the US during this period, resulting in two outcomes. The first was an abundance of vacant warehouse buildings, which were utilized by artists and individuals seeking to socialize. Disco music documents the inception of the Loft, a party hosted by David Mancuso at his warehouse apartment in Manhattan in 1970, where a diverse group of partygoers could enjoy dancing without fear of police interference. The music played was known as “danceable R&B” and many attendees also partook in LSD. David DePino recalls feeling like Pac-Man while under the influence of spiked punch served from a coffee urn, stating “I think I love acid.”
Three years after the economy was in crisis, there was another outcome where restaurants had to lease out their spaces at night due to a severe shortage of beef in 1973. As a result, Black and Latin employees of these restaurants ended up attending parties held there. DJ Hollywood refers to these events as “unheard of” where diverse social groups would dance together below 52nd Street. This is when music critic Vince Aletti wrote about “discotheque rock” for Rolling Stone magazine, which was later shortened to “disco”.
This series is a comprehensive collection of interviews with individuals who were present during the rise of disco and those who have extensive knowledge of its history and influences. Some notable names featured include Jake Shears, Jessie Ware, and Kim Petras. The series focuses on a select few influential tracks and delves into their popularity and the clubs and DJs that helped popularize them. It also includes interviews with pioneers of disco, covering everything from remixes to special effects to innovative speaker designs. Notable interviews include drummer Earl Young, who is credited with creating the standard disco beat and jokingly refers to himself as the “disco daddy,” as well as George McCrae, whose song “Rock Your Baby” is recognized as one of the three tracks that brought disco into the mainstream from its origins in the gay clubs.
There is much more to anticipate, yet this depiction of its initial stages is remarkable. It captures a spirit of idealism and enthusiasm, crafted by and for those on the fringes, who propelled culture forward and upward towards the future. Honey Dijon, a DJ and producer, believes that dancefloors bring people together through sound, in a way that governments and religions strive to keep us apart. It truly is a great equalizer. The only concern is that this will be broadcasted on traditional TV on a Saturday night. Hopefully, we will all be too occupied connecting on the dancefloor and will have to catch it on iPlayer instead.
Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution is on BBC Two and iPlayer.