The Last Days of Disco Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone forever. It's got to come back some day... I just hope that it will be within my lifetime.

The Last Days of Disco Poster

What killed disco?

The Disco Sound emerged in the mid-Seventies, bringing with it the entire club culture. Bolstered by the introduction of the twelve-inch single, which suited the extended mixes of the Disco Era, the club culture crossed over into the domain of mainstream music. The major record labels stood up and took notice of the numerous independent music houses pumping out new records in an effort to satiate the feeding frenzy for new disco tunes.

By mid-1977, there were upscale disco clubs in every major urban center where the growing masses of disco enthusiasts could dance the night away. Later on that same year, with the theatrical release of "Saturday Night Fever", disco fever gripped North America and became an industry unto itself. With high-tech clubs sprouting up all over the place, disco-format radio stations taking over the airwaves, and disco instructional classes preaching to the newly-converted, the Disco Sound seemed unstoppable.

However, by 1979, disco's luster began to fade, as new music genres started to dominate the mainstream charts, such as New Wave and Punk. Furthermore, the anti-disco backlash was gaining momentum, with the most famous incident occurring in July of that year-- the "Disco Sucks!" riot that engulfed Chicago's Comiskey Park. This riot, incited by Chicago DJ Steve Dahl, started with Dahl setting fire to hundreds of disco records during a White Sox doubleheader. The unruly fans, instigated by Dahl's actions, stormed the field and trashed the stadium.

Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale

The record labels were also looking forward to an end to disco's reign, citing that the popularity of disco music never translated well into LP (remember those?) sales. Other analysts have also blamed the decline of the Disco Sound on the growing popularity of video games, which siphoned discretionary income from record sales in favor of feeding the growing number of "Space Invaders" machines.

So what killed the Disco Sound? Was it the growing backlash? Was it a conspiracy by the record labels to move consumer tastes to a more profitable musical form? Was it the growing popularity of video games, gobbling up the disposable income once reserved for leisure suits? Was it due to a change in musical tastes? The death of disco may have been due to some or all of these factors, but I offer another one: demographics.

Disco's dead... people just aren't going out anymore.

Chris Eigeman and David Thornton

The Baby Boom encompassed the generation born between 1946 and 1964, with the majority of this demographic group being born between the years 1957 and 1961. By 1975, the bulk of the Baby Boom were in their early twenties. With their rising incomes and relatively few responsibilities, they had large amounts of disposable income and free time, both of which were spent going out.

I have to start looking out for myself.

However, as the Eighties approached, many of the Baby Boom generation did not go out as much anymore, as they had begun to settle down and start families. In fact, it was in 1977 that the Baby Boom Echo began, when birth rates in North America began to rise for the first time in ten years. So it may not have been the backlash, the record labels, or new musical genres that killed disco. It may have simply been the result of people just getting older.

You know the Woodstock generation that were conceited and so full of themselves? They couldn't dance.

The Last Days of Disco

"The Last Days of Disco", independent writer/director Whit Stillman's third feature, takes place during the final days of the Disco Sound. Chronologically, this film takes place in a time period between his debut "Metropolitan" and his follow-up "Barcelona". In September, sometime during the early 1980s, a group of recently graduated twentysomethings cross paths in a New York disco which looks suspiciously like the famed Studio 54. Like the dog-eat-dog corporate world outside, only the rich, well dressed, and beautiful could jump ahead of the line. Van (Burr Steers) is the arrogant doorman who acts as gatekeeper for the club, deciding who is 'good enough', and who isn't.

I'm beginning to think that the old system of people getting married on the basis of mutual respect and shared aspirations, and then over time earning each other's love and admiration worked the best.
Well... we'll never know.

Mackenzie Astin and Thornton

Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloe Sevigny of "Palmetto") are two young women who use their good looks to make it into the club, leaving their shabbily-dressed compatriots to shiver outside. Whereas Alice is a nice and unpretentious type of woman who values loyalty and friendship, her girlfriend Charlotte is a shallow material girl who only cares about looking good and hanging out with the 'right' people.

Did I ever tell you that my first job was in advertising at Y&R? In those days, the big thing was to be nice to everybody... to the secretaries, to the art director, to the client.
I don't think it's that way now.
I don't care. I don't want that element in the club.

For those not blessed with wealth or good looks, such as young advertising executive Jimmy Steinway(Mackenzie Astin), other short cuts are found, such as knowing someone on the inside of the club. Jimmy, whose job precipitously hangs on his ability to get his firm's clients into the club, takes advantage of his friendship with the club's womanizing assistant manager, Des (Chris Eigeman), much to the chagrin of Des' boss (David Thornton).

Actually, there's a theory that the environmental movement of the modern day was sparked by the re-release of 'Bambi' in the late 1950s. That for many members of the Baby Boom generation, it was traumatic when the hunters killed Bambi's mother.

Corporate grunts by day, disco queens at night

Other club regulars include Josh (Matthew Keeslar), an up-and-coming assistant District Attorney, and Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a lawyer practicing environmental law. Together, these young Baby Boomers will navigate through treacherous social circumstances, fall in and out of love, debate the existence of Yuppies, have their friendship tested, succumb to temptation, and most of all, dance the night away to a smashing soundtrack under the club's gaudy lights.

Okay, I work in advertising! Is that a crime?! What's happening to this country?!

While "The Last Days of Disco" may be short on plot (including a contrived money-laundering subplot), this film is sharp in its examination of social mores and its witty observations. Whit Stillman's gift for seemingly-banal-yet-insightful dialogue puts him on par with his more well-known contemporaries such as Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet (who wrote "The Edge"). "The Last Days of Disco" is not merely a narrative on the end of Seventies culture-- it is also a sardonic look at how society and attitudes have changed very little in the almost twenty years since disco faded from the club scene. Like the characters in the film, the young adults of today, the first batch of the Baby Boom Echo, are caught up in the desire to jump ahead in the line, to look good, and to improve their standing in society. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A gay mouth? I have a gay mouth?! What does that mean?
Exactly what I said.
It's true Des... your mouth does look gay.

Kate Beckinsale

Beckinsale is perfectly cast as the vain and domineering Charlotte, and her performance brings to mind Parker Posey ("Clockwatchers"). Sevigny does well as the not-so-assertive Alice who has trouble negotiating the sometimes-contradictory precepts of modern love. Eigeman also turns in a memorable performance as the seemingly-hapless but manipulative Des. Finally, watch out for some cameos by cast members from "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona" that emphasize the intertextuality of Stillman's films.

There's something deeply ingrained in human biology. Women prefer bad over weak, and indecisive, and unemployed.
I don't know about that.
What, you think they prefer weak, indecisive, and unemployed?

Though the lavish production design magnificently captures the glamour of the era, Stillman's rather conservative lensing doesn't elevate the film to the vibrancy suggested by the film's excellent soundtrack. The energy of the club's dance floor is notably absent from the film, and mars an otherwise exceptional effort.

VD's not all bad... you'll find that there are actually positive aspects to it.

The end of the Seventies may have marked the end of the Disco Era, but in many ways, the feelings and attitudes of those days are still with us, embodied in every new generation that makes the transition into adulthood. Music and fashion may change, but some things always stay the same.

We can change our context, but not ourselves.

Images courtesy of Polygram Filmed Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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