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Ed Driscoll

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While it ranks pretty low on the list of the many mistakes made during my misspent youth, more and more I regret being a part of the “disco sucks” movement of the late 1970s. Back then, I was an aficionado of the Beatles and their various British spawn — the Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, honorary-Brit Jimi Hendrix, et al. And a lot of the new wave music of the era, such as the Cars and the Pretenders. In contrast, a lot of disco music did sound awfully slick and plastic. On the dance floor, I’ve always had Stephen Hawkings’ moves, and that’s putting it charitably. So it was easy to hop on the bandwagon and attack disco. But had I known that disco’s successor would be atonal rap music that replaced real musicianship with drum machines, samples, grunting vocals, and scratching turntables, I would have luxuriated in the disco era forever. Come back Tony Manero, all is forgiven!

In 1998, Whit Stillman directed a film brilliantly titled The Last Days of Disco. At first glance, the director, invariably described as the WASP Woody Allen, seems to be an odd choice to direct such a movie. But while I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, Stillman’s films invariably end up documenting the transition between one era of American pop culture and the next. His first film, Metropolitan, made on a shoestring, funded in part by Stillman selling his apartment for $50,000, and released in 1990, documented the last days of the preppie era (or “the urban haute bourgeoisie,” as a character in the film refers to his caste) and debutante balls, and the transition into the multicultural, politically correct “America-Lite” Clinton-era 1990s.

His next film, arguably his best and most popular, was 1994′s Barcelona, which focused on the hatred of the European left of American servicemen and business executives shortly before the end of the Cold War. His most recent film, 2012’s whimsical Damsels in Distress, featured as its subplot the last college in America to go co-ed. (I interviewed Stillman back then; click here to listen.)

But in between those two films was 1998’s  Last Days of Disco, set at the dawn of the 1980s, which featured Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale as a pair of up-and-coming junior editors at a fictional Manhattan publishing house who spend their nights at a disco inspired by a combination of the anecdotes described in Anthony Haden-Guest’s 1997 book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, and Stillman’s own disco nights during that period. (Haden-Guest appears in a cameo, along with the ubiquitous late George Plimpton, as one of the nightclub guests in The Last Days of Disco.)

Non-Charismatic Leads Hamstring Film, Though Not Fatally

On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition of The Last Days of Disco, Stillman says he prefers writing roles for women over men. However, compared to Taylor Nichols and frequent Stillman stand-in Chris Eigeman in Barcelona, Sevigny and Beckinsale lack their chemistry and charisma. As physically attractive as they are, at least in The Last Days of Disco, they’re simply not all that exciting as leads to front a comedy-drama.

Perhaps Stillman knew it — Damsels in Distress, his most recent film, which also ends with a big dance number, appears to function on one level as a knowing pastiche of the two leads in The Last Days of Disco. Greta Gerwig seems to be a more charismatic version of Chloë Sevigny, and Megalyn Echikunwoke reverses the formula of Kate Beckinsale — she’s an American actress affecting a posh British accent.

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20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
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21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Disco was escapism, same as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Waltons, John Denver, and Euell Gibbons were escapism. A lot of people in the 70s wanted to escape all the crap - Nixon and Watergate, the Vietnam War, Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the crappy economy, the oil crisis, dirty and crime-ridden cities, etc.

So some of them escaped into drugs, sex, and dancing; others escaped into outer space; still others escaped into a "simpler, more natural" way of life. They even elected Jimmy Carter - the first escapist President. Reality destroyed Carter about the same time it destroyed Disco. But I don't think people stopped wanting to escape. The pop culture and music of the 80s weren't exactly grounded in reality.

A lot of us are still looking for an easy way out of our situation. Obama was the latest escapist President - another guy whose very election would miraculously renew our weary, dysfunctional nation. Obviously, that didn't happen. But I think reality is now staring the escapists in the face. They can no longer avoid it. Maybe they'll start working with it instead of relying on Progressive miracle cures. The Force is definitely not with them.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks to Whitman for giving us an honest look at WASP preppy culture. How they talk is so different from those of us from blue collar backgrounds. They work in publishing houses(or did) and for investment banking firms. Like Italians on Staten Island, they have their traditions -- cotillions and benefit parties -- but tradition reminds of from where we came.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Farah Fawcett hair, lycra, sport screwing hadn't yet become a blood sport, do a line to wake up so you can get to work; what's not to like about the disco era?
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
American pop music is an increasingly funny thing. Two concepts fly around it's production and popularity:

A) cool
B) being young

That means that if there is not a type of artistic integrity that originates from the culture of people who ultimately create the music itself and for its own sake, artistry risks being irrelevant, because it's not a necessary component.

Children are going to watch a bad cartoon in preference to a good adult film because it speaks to them and they know it's been created with them in mind.

So it is with pop music, and it's why there is a bust-boom cycle of generations with music made just for them. Disco wasn't young enough and too phony so punk came in. Grunge replaced punk before grunge became too tame - not enough cop hatred and shootings and it really didn't tick off adults. Pop has pretty much been stuck at hip-hop for 20 years.

You have either rap or a riff on rap like Rihanna, Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus with some room for political correctness like Lady Gaga or Arcade Fire and traditional pop like Katy Perry or Lana Del Rey if they're good looking enough and have good clothes.

The problem is it's become unrelentingly bad. Pop music is probably at its lowest ebb in terms of musicianship and producing, arranging and writing songs in its entire history.

It's not all that subjective an opinion: pure skill is out the window. Even bands with individual starring members have less artistic vision than a session band from years ago. Arranging and writing is so perfunctory, conformist and unoriginal compared to Lennon and McCartney and that entire era of songwriters it's just pitiful.

Music is no longer made to listen to on headphones and good stereos to capture subtlety, though more people listen to it on headphones than ever. Music is made for a dance vibe, once the province of people like a has-been Madonna or Cher, and now gone mainstream. Have a loud beat and an aura of the rebel. The rebel's been there a long time but kids are having to embrace increasingly vulgar or violent themes to separate themselves from mainstream society, an oddity when the "sensible" society which embraces this pop the most rile at the word "retarded" and talk about allergies to scented products and wheelchair access.

That creates oddities like having a vulgar racist like Jay-Z at a Presidential inaugural ball and his equally vulgar space wh-re wife as part of the gang. A pig like Li'l Wayne sings the national anthem at a ball game.

Adults have had a sharp dislike for young music for a long time now, but there's an equally sharp difference between hair over your collar and shaking your hips and singing about raping your rival's girlfriend.

One shudders to think what's next on the menu to enable that fix to continue. One thing we know: it won't be an expression of musical artistry.

21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Whit is a Conservative and his films (including Disco) have some great scenes that present Conservative thought in a very compelling way. Consider this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEUGmWlkJZk

Disco is a far better film than Damsels.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hmm, the movie just never seemed period-authentic to me. Outfits? Hair? Music? It just didn't feel right.

Nevermind, I wasn't really paying all that much attention anyway. I was mainly drinking in the sharply contrasting beauty of Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. And they didn't even take it off...
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't believe I can watch, 'Last Days..' For the simple fact of disco music obviously in the film.

Though I have the same sentiment for nighttime tv dramas, rom com's. For crummy acts such as TRAIN, Jason Mraz, Michael Buble, Marc Cohn or some other equally terrible, insipid sounds inundate the nonsensical, cardboard-like 'drama' series/ movie.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Come back Tony Manero, all is forgiven!"

When he dances, he takes my breat' away...NOT.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
I too detest disco and much prefer then- soul, R&B and REAL funk.

Though you'd mentioned the musical act 'Chic' you didn't mention their funky bass jam - 'Dance Dance Dance'. Yowzah yowzah yowzah!

Average White Band, Bootsy Collins, Dazz Band, Dynamite Brothers, Freddie King, Gap Band, Lafayette Afro Funk Band, Lakeside, O'Jays, Osibisa, Rotary Connection, Stretch, Sugarhill Gang, Tyrone Davis etc.,

The best thing I can say of disco is it helped usher in and encouraged NWOBHM to receive more deserved notice.

Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, DIO, early Def Leppard and numerous other acts from the U.S., Oz and the UK.

As for New Wave music, sure it has its place. Like disco it's revered by Top 40, mainstream music lemmings/ sheep.

Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford & numerous other metal acts message, vocals surpass the aforementioned pop genres even to this day.
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21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
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