Documentary ‘The Secret Disco Revolution’ examines untold story of disco era

Director Jamie Kastner reflects on whether disco is dead

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If disco is dead, then writer-director-producer Jamie Kastner has delivered its praising eulogy with his glittering, tongue-in-cheek documentary, “The Secret Disco Revolution.” Kastner does more than examine the history of the 1970s music craze — he offers a reflection upon the revisionist theory that, beneath its “carefully vapid veneer,” disco was actually a form of protest that was fundamental in liberating women, blacks and gays. The documentary tells the story of the supposed “revolution” through the eyes of a trio of “revolutionary masterminds” who use disco balls, polyester and a driving 4/4 beat as pawns in their subversive plot to liberate America’s oppressed minorities. This campy, satirical method of storytelling adds a level of self-awareness that legitimizes the film by acknowledging the expected skepticism inspired by the “disco revolution” theory.

Kastner himself initially shared some of this skepticism. “When I first heard the theories — that disco was a misunderstood time of revolution, liberating gay people, black people, women — my first reaction was actually to kind of chuckle,” Kastner said. “I’ve made other films on political issues, and I’m somewhat aware of other more conventional forms of protest music, so to think of disco, which is generally considered a fairly vapid form and era, being described as revolution, I raised an eyebrow, to say the very least.”

However, intrigued by the revisionist theories and the supporting academic evidence, Kastner found a way to informatively and honestly tell the story of disco while maintaining the fun and excitement of the era.

“I found that instead of challenging what they were saying in any kind of literal, head-on way, I would take an entirely ironic approach and agree with them 150 percent,” Kastner said. “That’s where I came to this tone of narration, with a revolution so secret the participants themselves were unaware of it.”

The film features stock footage from the disco era as well as a wealth of interviews with both academics and disco heavyweights like Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Anita Pointer, the Village People, Robert “Kool” Bell of Kool & the Gang and Harry Wayne “K.C.” Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band. Most of the disco artists themselves deny the political subversion of the music, while the academics are fiercely adamant about the revolutionary subtext of songs like “I Will Survive” and “YMCA.” Historian Alice Echols calls the extension of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” to 20 minutes as the “musical expression of the feminist critique of three-minute sex.” Kastner plays these genuinely thought-provoking arguments against the absurdity of overly intellectualizing an era so commonly remembered for its simplistic hedonism. With the recognition of the fact that nobody seemed to be aware of disco’s political power at the time, Kastner’s secret puppeteering “masterminds” emerge as the only logical orchestrators of the disco-era revolution.

“I decided, you know, it’s disco,” Kastner revealed. “If there’s ever a time to give cheesy, over-the-top ideas their day, this was it. And I went out to create the world of this glittery, cheesy trio of disco masterminds who embody the key tenants of the revisionist theories — gay, black, women liberation.”

Although Studio 54 is no longer running and Casablanca Records no longer signs disco artists, the legacy of the disco era continues to subtly influence modern pop music. From the harmonized falsetto of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” to Macklemore’s empowering argument for equality in “Same Love,” the style and sentiment of disco have outlived the genre itself. When asked if disco is dead, Kastner was quick to respond.

“No, disco is definitely not dead! In fact, I would debate whether it ever died. I think it just rebranded after its unfortunate market burnout in the late ’70s. It rebranded into different kinds of dance music: house, Michael Jackson’s oeuvre, to name a few. Now, even the brand is back, maybe not stronger than ever, but it’s certainly not a dirty word the way it was the last 20 years.”

Contact Grace Lovio at [email protected].

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