Ed Driscoll

Turn the Beat Around: A Reformed Disco Hater Looks Back at Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco

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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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Beating 54 to the Punch

All of that being said, the two stars in the foreground of The Last Days of Disco are surrounded by great production design, atmosphere and music. There’s something effortless in how the story moves along that makes the characters worth spending time with, particularly if you were about their same age and had similar upwardly mobile aspirations in this era. As Stillman notes on the commentary track for The Last Days of Disco, his first two movies made him a well-known, if not completely bankable director in Hollywood. When he proposed his disco project to Universal, they informed him that they’d be very willing to fund his movie, after the studio discovered that rival production house Miramax had a film in the works that same year on Studio 54 to star Mike Myers, then at the peak of his Austin Powers-era fame as Steve Rubell, the legendary disco’s…unique…co-owner. Stillman was told that if he could get his film into movie theaters before 54, they’d fund it.

Also working in Stillman’s favor, the soundtrack album alone would likely produce significant revenues for the studio, and ancillary revenues are always an important consideration when greenlighting a film. Beyond purchasing the rights to the songs for his soundtrack, a large part of the budget Stillman received from Universal went to redressing an elderly Loews Landmark movie theater in Jersey City that was scheduled for modernization, to stand in for the interior of its Studio 54-esque disco.

Bring Out Your Dead

The exterior of the nightclub was filmed in lower Manhattan. Set in the Ed Koch era but filmed at the peak of the Giuliani administration, the exteriors in The Last Days of Disco appear a bit too clean to represent their time. There’s little garbage in the street, graffiti is only visible in one shot near the end of the film, and the film’s one vintage Checker cab, which appears in several shots, is far too pristine for the actual era. Perhaps the filmmakers should have gone the Martin Scorsese route — his film crew scattered extra garbage around the location shots in 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead to simulate the look of the Dinkins era, a damning reminder of the lackadaisical and destructive policies of a Democrat mayor Scorsese very likely supported. And while Stillman was attacked by some critics who wanted to see the white polyester bell-bottomed suits of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever, he did get the fashions right: by the early 1980s, bell-bottoms and polyester were definitely being shunned by Manhattan’s urban haute bourgeoisie, and those who aspired to be in their circle.

Speaking of whom, Stillman wrote in cameos for the leads of Metropolitan and Barcelona to appear dancing in his fictitious disco. Don’t think about it too much, because those films are set a decade after The Last Days of Disco, but it’s a nice writerly touch to further interconnect the three films into a loose trilogy.

Double the Disco Weltschmerz!  

And speaking of interconnectedness, if you’ve got the patience for their 206 minute combined running time, The Last Days of Disco makes for an intriguing double-feature with 54, the film that helped launch its production. For film students in particular, it’s a master class in how the same underlying story — huge disco gets raided, closed by government officials — can be told in very different fashions. You can see the difference between characters who have the option of going to a disco at night if they choose, and those whose lives revolve around the disco, making it their quasi-religion. The characters in The Last Days of Disco are smart enough to have a future ahead of them. (Chris Eigeman’s character in The Last Days of Disco specifically rants about yuppies being slagged, flashing back to the media’s obsession and frequent negative portrayal of middle class professionals in the 1980s, a class that was seemingly almost wiped out by the stagflation of the Carter era.)

In contrast, the characters of 54 have no future, once the disco is closed. The hideous Jurassic “Disco Dottie” character dies there of a cocaine overdose at the climax of the film — and as Oscar Wilde (sadly born a century too early to have been a regular at 54) would say, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at her demise. Particularly when the actress who played her was nominated for a Razzie for her performance. (It’s not the actress, it’s the pathetic character she portrays.) In real life, Steve Rubell would die of AIDS in 1989. However, his business partner, Ian Schrager, did have a future beyond 54 — he was smart enough to survive the disco era to launch a series of glamorous hotels, and likely to avoid lawsuits, he’s never mentioned in the screenplay of 54.

America survived the disco era, but in terms of pop culture, it may not have been the better for it. The disco music of the 1970s was the last era in which musicians had to gather in a studio and play live to record a song’s backing track, before the era of programmable synthesizers, sampled loops, and drum machines. Guitarist Nile Rogers, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson, the core musicians in Chic, who recorded the smash hits “Good Times” and “Le Freak” in 1977 and ’78, were masters at creating a groove — no drum machines and samples here.

The Long Hangover

And no punitive anger, either. The death metal and gangster rap of the 1990s, and today’s Weimar-esque “tweaking,” seem like more of an assault on the audience than entertainment. (Of course, there’s more than a hint of Weimar in the disco era as well.) In a sense, it’s all part of an extended hangover from myriad excesses of the disco era; as Steve Rubell said only two months before his death, “I was walking down Fifth Avenue, and all of a sudden I see all these faces I knew from Studio 54 coming out of a church. Lots of them. Same people. I knew them. Then I looked and saw the bulletin board of the church, and they were coming out of an AA meeting.”

At the end of The Last Days of Disco, a supporting character in the film tries to buck up the rest of the cast:

Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh for a few years, maybe many years it will be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented, caricatured and sneered at, or worse, completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton John, white polyester suits and platform shoes and going like this! [Mimics Saturday Night Fever pose] But we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco. Those who didn’t understand will never understand. Disco was much more, and much better than all that. Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone forever. It has got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.

Sorry, I’ve got a job interview this afternoon and I was trying to get revved up, but – most of what I said I ,uh, believe.

Turn the beat around — I’m not quite sure if I’m ready for that level of retroactive enthusiasm over disco. But after watching The Last Days of Disco, I may be getting there.

Earlier:

Update (11/19/13): A source involved in the film’s production emails that it was funded by Castle Rock Entertainment, not Universal; the seemingly ubiquitous Universal globe logo and its thunderous accompanying trumpet score that now appear before the start of the film on the DVD were placed there because Universal acquired its home distribution rights.

Our source also notes that Stillman’s idea for the movie, and its title, were announced by Castle Rock long before the production of 54 was disclosed by Miramax, though as we wrote above, Castle Rock ultimately did try to get the production of Last Days of Disco out into the theaters before 54 was scheduled to premiere. Apologies for any confusion.

(Artwork created using an element from Shutterstock.com.)