The 21st century eschews disco. Art-school Brooklynites, specifically the folks at DFA Records, have tried to sell the genre as a lovably uncool past-fad worth revisiting and resurrecting, but beyond linear rhythms and a lyrical emphasis on carpe diem, traces of the sound in modern pop are minimal. Artists like Gloria Gaynor and Barry White have become compost-bin fodder for wedding bands and karaoke machines. In his new documentary, The Secret Disco Revolution, Jamie Kastner doesn't waste much time arguing for disco's currency. The film is instead a sojourn in a time capsule, a tribute to a very dormant genre of music that thrived during the '70s, but could barely survive past 1980.
Although Kastner's unbridled affection for the days of disco is evident in every shot, lending the doc an air of authenticity, he's an unfocused critic. His interviewees, from Thelma Houston to former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, have divergent theories regarding the true import of disco. Kastner ignores these incongruences, embracing everything as one, big, messy discourse on his beloved genre. The effect can be jarring, such as when the film juxtaposes discussions on "the era of the macho man" and feminist politics without clear transition.
At its best, the film functions as a fine mixtape for both knowledgeable and entry-level disco fans; it gives us a plethora of classic live performances from the '70s, all of which add up to a cogent picture of the genre's sonic evolution over the years. But it ends lamely, with Kastner bowing fully to hedonism in lieu of all the scholarly theories on disco's lasting impact—a tidy but gutless way of tying together so many disparate arguments by such disparate people. This plays out in the goofy final moment when Felipe Rose, best known as the Native American from the Village People, clasps Kastner's neck in a playful embrace, reminding him that disco, as an art form, was hardly cerebral and therefore doesn't require deconstruction. "Don't read no more books! You're reading too much," Rose says like a true pleasure-seeking guru, sweeping away the previous hour's attempt to define the music as a concerted intellectual movement to bring us right back where we started from: a realm of gleeful, mindless butt-shaking.