Roush Review: A ‘Disco’ Documentary You Can Dance To

TV Shows
Matt’s Rating: rating: 3.5 stars

As you might expect for a documentary titled Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution, this vibrant three-part account of the rise and fall of the disco era has a great beat and you can dance to it. Dancing being the motivating factor that fueled the genre’s birth in the early 1970s in abandoned New York City warehouses and underground clubs. In these havens, marginalized people found community within walls of sound and pulsating tempos, allowing free expression of Black pride, women’s newfound liberation and LGBTQ+ acceptance.

“It’s the great equalizer,” explains DJ/producer Honey Dijon, reflecting fondly on a movement that became a phenomenon. “In the late ’70s, the outsider became the insider,” says photographer Bill Bernstein, who captured the scene in images as club DJs created cult hits that crossed over to the mainstream, earning radio play for heretofore overlooked Black artists. “Disco divas” including Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor became superstars, Saturday Night Fever conquered the box office and record charts, and the glitterati clamored for entrance to the notorious Studio 54.

Even the outrageous Village People, sending up gay stereotypes with its infectious anthems (“YMCA” and “In the Navy”), was embraced by the actual U.S. Navy as a recruiting tool. It seemed as if the age of leisure suits and platform shoes would be with us forever.

Eventually, oversaturation led to cheap imitation, mockery—remember “Disco Duck”?—and a backlash from rock ’n’ roll zealots that culminated in an album-burning riot at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979, bringing the disco craze to a halt. But far from a “Last Dance,” disco’s long shadow lives on as electronic house music.

Soundtrack of a Revolution also provides an entertaining and valuable cultural history of a turbulent time of sexual revolution and Vietnam War protest, anticipating a decimating AIDS crisis. As art historian Dr. Lisa Farrington notes, “When life gets hard, you party harder.”

True then, true now.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution, Series Premiere, Tuesday, June 18, 9/8c, PBS

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