Interview: Jamie Kastner

Secret Disco Revolution

It’s the opening weekend of TIFF 2012 and outside it’s raining buckets of drenching water cutting through the summer heat. It isn’t, however, raining men, which given the interview I am traipsing down Queen Street East in Toronto to get from filmmaker and documentarian Jamie Kastner, would have been entirely appropriate.

It’s the morning of his film’s world premiere at TIFF, The Secret Disco Revolution (opening in Toronto and Montreal this Friday and July 6th in Edmonton), and Kastner is doing interviews out of his own home and office space a bit more removed from the bustling and drenched downtown core. He’s busily trying to get things in order to make sure his ambitious premiere (which included an appearance from Thelma Houston) goes off without a hitch.

Kastner goes a bit outside his own comfort zone with his latest project and fifth feature. Instead of taking an ironic, boundary pushing looks at things that personally affect him (like the economic downturn in Recessionize!: For Fun and Profit and his own Jewish identity in Kike Like Me), he sets out to craft an oral history from a different perspective.

Films that focus on the rise and fall of disco as a genre of dance music in the 1970s often dwell on the fashion, drugs, and sexuality of the time, but the period outside of interested academic has rarely been glimpsed on screen from a sociocultural perspective. Talking to those who lived through the era and to people looking to give new context to the time period, an interesting theory about disco as a form of rebellion began to form for him.

We sat down with Kastner to talk about the evolution of disco, why “Good Times” might be a secretly ironic protest anthem, the occasionally brusque nature of The Village People, and the challenges faced in crafting an alternate take on an established history.

Dork Shelf: Music gets stuck in cycles, and right now we seem to be sort of stuck in this dubstep off shoot of the house music genre. Do you hope to sort of bring disco back to the forefront and remind people of where the music that’s popular at the moment came from?

Jamie Kastner - Secret Disco Revolution - F2Jamie Kastner: Well, it wasn’t my original intention to bring back the music and remind people of that, but I think that disco is certainly the root, and in retrospect perhaps a more interesting and varied root of a lot of the electronic dance music that’s still around. I do have a sense, though, that those big disco hits never really went away. That was something I was exploring in the research stage, and it’s strange to talk about it now versus doing the research or making the film where it’s a lot harder to actually show that point. I remember the point I remember originally wanting to make was to question why disco was everywhere. It was in every shopping mall muzak and you hear these songs on the radio all the time. I don’t think, in that sense, that disco needed me to bring it back. I think in some regard it’s never gone away, and in any case it seems like there are all these old songs still kicking around that people are rediscovering all the time.

DS: Disco came right after the sort of 50s doo-wop era and the 60s free love movement, but in a lot of ways it also influenced hip-hop, pop, and even the singer-songwriter movement. Was it your goal to really trace the evolution of this kind of music?

JK: Well, the jumping off point for this are these revisionist histories about the origins of this music and the time and the forum in which it ascended – clubs and then to larger venues as the industry grew – state that this time period was incredibly misunderstood. It wasn’t just this time of dancing, drugs, and partying, but it was an important time of protest and liberation.

As someone who is really interested in both music and protest, both of which I’ve touched upon in other ways in earlier films, my initial reaction was “Huh?!?” Whatever anyone thinks about disco as a genre, most people never think of it as a form of protest music, that’s for sure. In so far as these were theories that I snickered at when I started out initially, as I went on and progressed, I took it more seriously even if I didn’t buy them 100%. There was definitely some interesting stuff to chew on there. In exploring these new revisionist theories of disco, I definitely thought the music had reached a time where it could be analyzed within a certain context different than what had come before it.

Early on and in the first couple of minutes of the film I have this cheesy, ironic framing device about thee secret disco masterminds puppeteering the movement and watching TV to document it and watching decades in protest music up until the 60s. 50s and 60s civil rights songs and then more Pete Seger-y kind of stuff in the 60s. I do think it’s important to look at these things in context about it being a product of its time and seeing where it came from.

DS: It kind of proves what I tell people all the time, which is that you can get scholarly about pretty much anything and it’s interesting to see people taking that perpective here. Were you surprised how in-depth some people were willing to look into this music that was seen by many as being more of a “good time” thing?

JK: Absolutely. It was a complete revelation to me to see people thinking this music had these protest qualities. How deeply buried could it really be? But there’s certainly as you point out to see what goes into the writing of history, and in some regards it’s possibly to grab a fact from here and a fact from there and all of a sudden you have a theory. On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean that becomes completely dimissable. There are some merits to all of the claims. There was definitely a huge recession going on post-Vietnam. Early 70s New York was a scuzzy place. You look at these kinds of social movements in these kind of context, but had I ever thought about something like Chic’s “Le Freak” as a protest song before? No. (laughs)

Sadly, one of the people who I don’t have in the film because he was in such poor health, Nile Rodgers of Chic, he used to be in the Black Panthers, which was a huge surprise. It’s not just academics that view it as a kind of protest. He himself thought the song “Good Times,” for instance which is arguably the basis of hip-hop if you look at how Sugarhill Gang used it as a basis for “Rappers Delight,” saw it as a protest against the recession that was going on at the time. “These are the good times.”

DS: That kind of reads it as a song that’s dripping with sarcasm, in a way.

JK: I guess so, but its always fun to grapple with what a song means to you versus what it actually means versus what an academic says about it. People always talk about something like Steely Dan dripping with irony, but I personally can’t understand any of their lyrics. (laughs) But “Good Times” I guess when someone tells you it’s viewed in that way could be seen as ironic. Irony was the last thing that would have entered my mind when listening to that song, but you ask Nile Rodgers and he’ll say that if Bob Dylan sang that song everyone would have taken it obviously as a great protest anthem.

DS: Well, you would hear something Dylan did in a concert hall, but you would hear “Good Times” in the club, which also adds the question of what one’s surroundings add to the context of the music. Was it harder to get people to talk about the club scene – which had its own set of problems – or to look at this from a greater context?

JK: I think there were various challenges particularly when you’re doing documentaries when you’re trying to talk to celebrities and get straight answers. It’s hard enough getting to sit down with a major celebrity from this era, but it’s a whole different set of challenges when you’re trying to get to someone who peaked their celebrity 30 years ago. It becomes this commodity that they either live on or they don’t live on anymore, and in a shrinking market for this product how they see media entering into that is always different. The musicians were always tricky to get access to, but the club people who are more unsung and not as famous were perhaps a bit easier to get to talk.

Tom Moulton, for instance, who was the inventor of the 12-inch single and was credited with inventing disco mixing and remixing and a while bunch of different dance techniques that are still used today and who was ALSO the actual Marlboro Man back in the day when he was a model, was among the people really eager to talk about the time.

But, I mean, the other down side of that is because it was a club-y and druggy scene, sadly a lot of people just aren’t around anymore.

DS: And then you have groups like The Village People, who you interview in the film and they are EXTREMELY intense and guarded and almost stand-offish about their place in history. Was that one of the ones that was hard to get?

JK: The Village People were actually relatively, in terms of setting up the actual interview were quite nice and not really any more difficult than most. They were really helpful and accommodating in that regard. But I guess there were certainly surprises in that interview. I went in and opened with a question that seemed to me to be fairly obvious about them being regarded as gay icons, and they did not want to talk about being associated with the gay world at all. I just couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t asking, nor did I ever care about their personal sexual orientation, but I didn’t think it was a revolutionary notion that these people were and still are gay icons.

DS: Which runs pretty much directly affront to what their producers say their songs are actually about in the film.

JK: Well, happily much later in the editing process that came to light. The Village People were created by two French guys, Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo, who came to New York with the express idea of creating a pop-disco act that would have a gay positive message. Morali was gay and died of AIDS in 1991, and he was generally the one most associated with the group and its success. People often forget about Henri Belolo, who was more widely credited as the business guy of the equation, despite getting credits as a producer and lyricist. And he’s still around in Paris and very rarely gives interviews, so I was luck to get him to come on and have a chat, and he’s a very nice guy.

It’s interesting in the filmmaking process because I did the bulk of all these interviews during a two week process in New York and Los Angeles, but stars and touring musicians are hard to get ahold of. KC was coming through Casino Rama in Orillia when I managed to get him. Then I had to make a separate trip to New York to get Gloria Gaynor. But Henri Belolo might have been the last or second to last interview we got and it was really late into the editing process, and sometimes that’s when your best stuff comes in. We knew that Village People section was great material, but while I was doing the research I knew Morali was dead, but I wondered if we could have gotten Belolo. That was a lucky break.

DS: And a lot of these touring musicians have to tour to survive now since most of them aren’t putting out records anymore. That must have been a bit of a strain on you.

JK: It was certainly a hard thing to coordinate. I worked with a great team of people and researchers, but a lot of other people’s work went into the final product. Not to review my own work (laughs), but it’s a rich film. I think it’s the most complex and layered film of the five films that I’ve done, and they’re all hard to make, but this one I felt the challenged of doing something both original and definitive – the latter of which was something I had never previously aspired towards since I’m usually doing offbeat angles on established subjects where I don’t feel I have to chase celebrities and do all that. My editor and long time collaborator Greg West said that the movie poster had to read like The Towering Inferno. (laughs)

DS: You have to stay true to both the people and the history involved, which seems like the biggest challenge.

JK: It is the challenge, but again compared to even the film I made before this, which was a black comic road movie about the recession called Recessionize and before that with Kike Like Me about Jewish identity, those films were different because there was no natural story to them. I had the onus then of creating a whole narrative arc and I was in those films so it was more about my journey rather than an historical one. But with this one, the plus is that history adds a natural arc to everything. That is a real gift comparatively. But as you say, it raises other challenges because you do have to stay true to those things and I still want to kind of put an ironic twist on it.

DS: You can do that, but you can’t change history.

JK: Absolutely true, and you’re dealing with classic documentary elements. You’re dealing in interviews with historical figures, those who lived it, stock footage. There are rules about how these things have to work.

DS: With something like this I’m sure there are always things that you have to sort of dance around, because of rights issues and the way people feel about these sorts of things and what you can and can’t talk about. Was there anything you wish you could have touched on that you didn’t get a chance to?

JK: At the very beginning we sort of missed Donna Summer coming through town. I kind of regret that now, and we tried to get her, but maybe we started that chase too late. She’s on one of these casino route tours, and then a promise was made to see her that never came to happen. When we tried her again, she just wasn’t talking, and I think she was kind of sick at that point when we tried again, and then unfortunately she died. So I think within our requirements you needed either Gloria Gaynor or Donna Summer, and thankfully we got Gloria Gaynor. There aren’t any big gaping holes in the film. We got to most of the stars we wanted to get to and we had a pretty substantial budget as far as docs go, certainly the biggest I ever had. It’s still a challenge to pay for all that stuff, but we have a lot of great footage that hasn’t been seen before. We were able to get things that give a real feeling of what it was like to be at a place like Studio 54. I had obviously watched all the films on that subject, but I never got a feeling of what it was like, and I think thanks to what we had access to, we were able to do that and I’m really proud of that.

DS: It’s certainly preferable to watching 54.

JK: (laughs) You know, that could be damning with faint praise, but I’ll take it. Thank you.