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