Arriving amid a wave of nostalgia ranging from ESPN’s “The Bronx is Burning” to Tom Brokaw’s upcoming History Channel documentary “1968,” VH1’s “NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell” adopts an appropriately irreverent tone in exploring cultural trends that sprouted in the city during that tumultuous year. Relegating politics mostly to the background, Nanette Burstein’s brisk-moving project tracks the near-simultaneous emergence of hip-hop, punk and disco, as well as a sexually permissive club scene from Studio 54 to Plato’s Retreat — all in the pre-AIDS era. If not entirely the good ol’ days, they certainly make for interesting viewing.
The primary theme running throughout the two hours, though, is that the chaos of those times generated a kind of artistic explosion — coalescing in a New York where crime (including the Son of Sam murders), liberated sexuality (as gays began coming out) and larger-than-life politicos (Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug) combined to create a strange vitality that nurtured those nascent musical genres. Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) and her team, including director Henry Corra, puts it together in a way that accentuates the anarchic feel of the times, simultaneously providing an illicit glimpse of the sordid goings-on behind the velvet ropes. And while not exactly wistful, the reminiscing by the musicians, club denizens and journalists come refreshingly without judgment and seemingly guilt-free. It’s worth noting, too, that events in “NY77” continue to resonate, inasmuch as the lingering image of big-city decadence informs every current reference by conservatives to the vast schism between New York and heartland values. As the cultural wars rage on, then, there’s good reason to look back at these formative years as a sort of historic Mapquest — shedding light on the journey’s starting point, if at best a dotted line regarding the road traveled from there to here.