Disco on Film

In Comiskey Park Baseball Stadium, Chicago on 12 July 1979, thousands of disco records were blown up. The now-infamous “Disco Demolition Night” was organised by the White Sox’ owners and  radio shock jock Steve Dahl as a promotional event for the failing stadium. At least 50,000 people, three times their usual crowd, gathered to protest disco and watch the explosion. The detonation showered the field in shards of vinyl and a pitch invasion by the audience lead to fires and rioting. Some people, including Dahl, have claimed that the anti-disco backlash was due to the saturation of highly commercial disco music on formerly rock & roll radio stations, while others at the time noted the predominantly white, heterosexual, male composition of disco’s detractors; the slogan “disco sucks” taken as a thinly veiled attack on the perceived femininity and homosexuality of the genre.

A few months prior to the demolition night, the British marxist Richard Dyer published ‘In Defense of Disco’ in the magazine Gay Left. Dyer wrote against those who saw rock as the only ‘authentic’ music. While Dyer understood disco as a product of capitalism – as with any other musical genre – he nonetheless saw it as a space of potential utopian liberation and queer empowerment, and the discotheque as the post-civil rights space of racial integration, stating: “What happens in that space of leisure can be profoundly significant – it is there that we may learn about an alternative to work and to society as it is.” Dyer would later become an influential film theorist and critic, relating roles of race and gender to cinema. With disco meeting at the intersection of these discourses it is important to look back and see how it was represented on film. Much more than camp musicals, these films can be understood as significant expressions and shapers of political opinion.

Saturday Night Fever (1977), dir. John Badham. From the first scene Badham shows the disco lover as a lower class worker. John Travolta, as Tony Manero, struts through the streets of Brooklyn carrying a paint tin. Saturday Night Fever was produced at the height of disco, and influenced the white heterosexual uptake of the genre. The film itself was based on a magazine article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Nights”, written by Nik Cohn for New York Magazine in 1976. Ironically, it was revealed By Cohn in 1994 that the article was largely fictionalised.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), dir. Richard Brooks. College student Theresa Dunn, played by Diane Keaton, finds sexual freedom away from her traditional Polish-Irish catholic parents in the discos of San Francisco, ending up in a world of casual non-monogamy, cocaine, and abusive relationships with older men. There film has an obviously moralistic plot that is anti-drugs and sex, as well as a predictable ending. Made in the same year as Saturday Night Fever, it shows that the popularisation of the disco, and of sexual freedom, was already feared by some.

Nighthawks (1978), dir. Ron Peck. A London-based take on the disco scene, Nighthawks is notable for its rounded depiction of gay life in the late 1970s. Jim (Ken Robertson), is a drab geography teacher who spends his nights in clubs picking up men. Here, disco is the backdrop and a means to an end. The repetitive beat underscores the repetitive nature of Jim’s life; every night he experiences the same inane small talk, the same disappointing one night stands. The film inverts the idea of the familiar, at school he’s closeted, at the nightclub he’s who he wants to be.

Thank God It’s Friday (1978), dir. Robert Klane. Set on a single Friday night in the fictional LA club, The Zoo, this film takes a more satirical look at clubbers of the time. A young Jeff Goldblum stars as the lascivious owner, and many cameos are made by disco artists, including The Commodores and Donna Summer. The film parodies the idea of the club as a place of transformation through a mismatched blind date and straight laced characters taking drugs. In his article, Dyers invokes Thank God It’s Friday as an example of how disco is often seen as, “lavishly gaudy, in the mirrors and tat of discotheques, the glitter and denim flash of its costumes.”