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The Secret Disco Revolution

There's a gold mine of vintage clips in "The Secret Disco Revolution," but Jamie Kastner's documentary tethers them to a strained thesis and a misfired package concept.

With: Alice Echols, Henri Belolo, Larry Harris, Michael Musto, Harry Wayne "KC" Casey, Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, the Village People, Nicky Siano, the Trammps, Martha Wash, Julia Hladkowicz, Reg Taylor, Kito Lightbourne, Adrian Miller, Greg "Cookie" West. Narrator: Peter Keleghan.

There’s a gold mine of vintage clips in “The Secret Disco Revolution,” but Jamie Kastner’s documentary tethers them to a strained thesis and a misfired package concept. Oft-told story of the Me Decade’s booty-shaking dance craze has some colorful insights from interviewees, and can hardly help but provide campy fun. Still, its flaws make this a less-than-definitive account. Broadcast sales will be hit-and-miss.

The thesis part, articulated mostly by academic and author Alice Echols, is that disco was a semi-deliberately subversive form, one that threw off the male heterosexual impetus of most rock ‘n’ roll (and much R&B), for the first time using a popular musical form to empower gays, blacks and women together in a decade already making much ado about shifting gender roles and power structures.

This is a reasonable enough notion, though Echols sometimes takes it a little too far, particularly when asserting that Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” and other long-form grooves consciously championed the female multiple orgasm, in contrast to the bang-and-done masculinity of the three-minute rock single. (This feminist argument tends to overlook that such songs were almost exclusively written, produced, purchased and danced to by men, with the distaff singers basically hired hands.) At least Kastner has the wisdom to poke at the stuffiness of some such ideas at the film’s end, when he lets himself be mocked for his pretensions by still-active performers the Village People.

More problematic is the constant presence of an arch narrator (Peter Keleghan), and three actors (Reg Taylor, Kito Lightbourne, Julia Hladkowicz) playing mythological “Disco Masterminds,” who run around allegedly orchestrating the genre’s rise. They then retreat with dismay (possibly to outer space) when the popularity overkill triggered by “Saturday Night Fever” brings about the genre’s downfall. This bit of dialogue-free, tongue-in-cheek narrative just isn’t funny, stylish or pointed enough to seem more than labored whimsy.

On the plus side, the interviews are often entertaining, particularly when they get catty or contradictory. Notably, several women singers bemoan how their careers wound up forever defined by a frivolous disco hit apiece. And it’s a hoot seeing the Village People and surviving creator/producer Henri Belolo (his partner Jacques Morali was an AIDS casualty) flatly contradict one another in intercut footage. Belolo insists the act was always a deliberate, double-entendre filled in-joke of gay cultural subversion, while the costumed quintet, perhaps mindful of the corporate parties and other square gigs paying their bills these days, denies there was ever any such intent.

Naturally, the archival clips (Elizabeth Klinck is credited with visual research and clearance) provide plenty of dated fashion, graphics and fun. But much of this story — the rise and fall of Studio 54, the “Disco Sucks” backlash — has been told too many times before, and in greater detail, for this nutshell recap to feel fresh.

Packaging is pro, much of it faithfully ’70s-inspired in look, including use of the 35mm format now rare among documentaries.

The Secret Disco Revolution

Documentary - Canada

Production: A Telefilm Canada and Rogers Group of Funds presentation through the Theatrical Documentary Program in association with Bell Media of a Cave 7 production. (International sales: Entertainment One, Toronto.) Produced, directed, written by Jamie Kastner.

Crew: Camera (color), Derek Rogers; editor, Greg West; music, David Wall, Jamie Shields, Adam White; production designer, Marian Wihak; costume designer, Linda Muir; sound (Dolby Digital), Jason Milligan; re-recording mixer, Mike Duncan; graphics/animation, Jon Laakso; casting, Marjorie Lecker. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 9, 2012. Running time: 85 MIN.

Cast: With: Alice Echols, Henri Belolo, Larry Harris, Michael Musto, Harry Wayne "KC" Casey, Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, the Village People, Nicky Siano, the Trammps, Martha Wash, Julia Hladkowicz, Reg Taylor, Kito Lightbourne, Adrian Miller, Greg "Cookie" West. Narrator: Peter Keleghan.

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