"Maestro" maps an evocative history of the underground dance music culture of the '70s and '80s as it evolved at legendary Gotham locales like the Paradise Garage and the Loft. Josell Ramos' docu expounds the joys of clubbing to the uninitiated while regaling aficionados with testimonials about brilliant pioneer deejays and the invention of the tweeter cluster.

“Maestro” maps an evocative history of the underground dance music culture of the ’70s and ’80s as it evolved at legendary Gotham locales like the Paradise Garage and the Loft. Josell Ramos’ docu expounds the joys of clubbing to the uninitiated while regaling aficionados with testimonials about brilliant pioneer deejays and the invention of the tweeter cluster. Pic, riding era’s newfound relevance in the wake of recent books and CDs, unspooled theatrically in scattered European cities and opens in New York City March 12 prior to limited release in Chicago and Los Angeles.

For the faithful, underground clubs offered a haven, a sense of community unaffected by race, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity or class. Starting mainly as a gay phenomenon shortly after Stonewall outed gay pride, the genuinely welcoming, unpretentious atmosphere, unique aesthetic, eclectic music and killer sound systems soon attracted straights of all persuasions.

Unlike upscale, overground discos like Club 54 which were based on exclusivity, the Loft, the Gallery and the Paradise Garage, each in its own distinctive way, promised total acceptance. Now 15 or 20 years later, friendly, hang-loose habitues exchange anecdotes and speak to the camera, testifying with affectionate nostalgia and abiding gratitude about the clubs that changed or even saved their lives.

Of course, what really distinguished underground clubs was the music, the unique sound created by the succession of different records and the mixing of platters to sustain a nonstop groove. Through interviews with innovative deejays like Frankie Grasso (caught shortly before his death), Nicky Siano, and David Mancuso, an informal history of the art takes shape, as distinctive in its group ethos as in its individual contributions. Thus the emotional continuity created by the modern “maestro” becomes inseparable from technological advances in sound design.

One maestro dominates Ramos’ docu — the late Larry Levan, high priest of the turntables at the Paradise Garage. He figures prominently in the culture’s rise and in its fall. Though Levan didn’t die of AIDS, the devastation wrought by the disease, which decimated the ranks of clubgoers and owners alike, was indirectly responsible for his death.

No cameras or tape recorders were allowed in the clubs, and the available footage looks dreadful and sounds worse. Grainy and out of focus, this archival material can only hint at the all-enveloping audio and visual experience to which the film pays tribute. Yet in Ramos’ mix, the muddy imagery, accompanied by a savvy yet unobtrusive, silence-laden score, creates its own aesthetic, continued in the underlit, off-center present-day interviews and random shots of glistening cobblestone streets at night. Oddly, it works, conveying a mysterious, imperfectly glimpsed world shrouded in the strobing mists of the past.

This soft-focus evocation of a bygone era stands in clear contrast to pic’s coda, a sharply delineated montage of contemporary deejays in clubs all over the world, inheritors of the underground legacy.

Maestro

Production

An Artrution production. Produced, directed, written by Josell Ramos.

Crew

Camera (B&W/color, video), Ramos; editors, Ramos, Eric Moorman; music, Raw Habits, Jephte Guillaume, Antonio Ocasio, Michael Cole; associate producers, Jamal J. Dorsett, Kervyn Mark, Edmar Flores. Reviewed at Bryant Park Hotel screening room, New York City, Feb. 3, 2004. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Frankie Knuckles, Nicky Siano, Francis Grasso.
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