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BC049 – Documentary review: ‘The War on Disco’
From ‘American Experience,’ a rich retelling of one of dance music’s foundational myths
The War on Disco, from American Experience (PBS, aired October 30), dir. Lisa Quijano Wolfinger
I like the way Nate Patrin put it when he told me about this 51-minute documentary, which you can stream from the PBS website: “It didn’t tell me a lot that I didn’t know, but the footage was really effective.” That’s me, too, though I’ll modify it a bit—the footage deepened facts that I was already aware of, and offered perspectives I hadn’t considered.
I recall some ILX crank once describing Disco Demolition Night as one of the most overdetermined cultural events of modern times (I’m paraphrasing, obviously). I don’t think that’s wrong, entirely, but I also don’t think it’s actually possible to overdetermine it. Its resonances just keep growing with time. When Jefferson Cowie calls it the hinge point of the culture war, in almost exactly those words, he’s not just whistling Ethel Merman.
The first ten minutes of The War on Disco, via YouTube
What I love about The War on Disco is how attuned it is to the particulars of Disco Demolition Night (or DDN) as a Chicago phenomenon, meaning riven by racism. In footage from a 2016 interview, Steve Dahl insists the event wasn’t intended as racist or homophobic; one of his colleagues insists: “We didn’t make fun of Black artists. We made fun of the Bee Gees.” It reminded me of Les Blank, in Always for Pleasure (1978), showing-not-telling New Orleans’ segregation: everybody drinking and dancing in the streets for St. Patrick’s Day is white, while the celebrants of the Second Line and the Mardi Gras krewes are almost all Black. The War on Disco tells as well as shows, via everyday Chicagoans who went to discos and who went to the White Sox double-header. The former are Black and the latter white, and they talk, sometimes poignantly, about that difference.
Disco Demolition Night, via Wikipedia
The disco aspect of the film comes closer to Nate’s point. The music’s history is clearly shown from a gay and Black perspective—a Black feminist one especially, with Yale’s Daphne Brooks and singer Linda Clifford offering both historical and personal perspective. It’s a rich retelling: I did know many of the facts here, though not always the details, which make the story resonate. Bringing in Chicago’s Wayne Williams, of the Chosen Few, as a key eyewitness also brings the story over specifically, and smartly, to Chicago.
The War on Disco immediately leaps to the fore of documents about the riot at Comiskey Park, along with Peter Shapiro’s account in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. Like that book’s chapter does, the filmmakers here unroll the event step by step. (In addition to director Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, The War on Disco was written and produced by Rushmore Denooyer and edited by Jed Rauscher, with Mary Antinozzi Soule the archival producer.) Seeing the kids arriving en masse, climbing over walls and fences to get into Comiskey Park, crowding the stadium—the promotion had been expected to draw five thousand or so, instead of the fifty thousand that got in and thousands more standing outside—and drinking, ready to cause mayhem, only tightens the screws. And seeing Dahl blow up disco records and then get out of dodge, and the resulting fracas, shown in basically real time, is hideous. The line between it and Woodstock ’99 and Trumpist rallies is drawn vividly, though nobody says that part aloud in the doc.
My own favorite talking head was Lee Abrams. Seeing him here, in fact, gave me déjà vu. Abrams plays a sizable role in my book Can’t Slow Down—he had been the key architect of AOR (album oriented rock) radio, who in 1983 switched gears entirely, mandating the eighty rock stations for which he consulted begin playing Michael Jackson and Culture Club alongside Led Zeppelin and the Stones, one of the actions that kicks the book into gear. What I had not realized until seeing The War on Disco is that Abrams, a native Chicagoan, had been one of the people behind WLUP, the AOR start-up that hired Dahl, shortly after his firing by a Top 40 station that had gone all-disco, as a DJ. In short, I discovered that Abrams played a key role in both my (non-33 1/3) books: DDN is generally considered to have—and is treated in this documentary as having—helped sire house music, in ways both direct and not. Here, Abrams is no-bullshit and utterly confident, exactly the way you’d expect someone who began directing an industry in his teens to be.
Best in show: Nancy Faust, the White Sox’s organist for over forty years. She also offers its best bit of music, a brief, rollicking stroll through “Stayin’ Alive.”