Saturday night forever: the best disco movies ride again

From blockbusters like Saturday Night Fever to obscurities such as Derek Jarman shooting a night in a London club, a New York film festival reaches the floor

Titled after Donna Summers deliciously suggestive dance floor hit from 1979, Dim All the Lights: Disco and the Movies is a tightly curated repertory programme of disco-inspired cinema operating at New Yorks Metrograph from 5 to 11 August.

This thematically and stylistically wide-ranging collect of films reaches well above and beyond the widespread perception of the disco scene as a gaudy, lycra-slathered boat for peppy escapism to explore its complicated relationship to gender, race, sexuality and memory. Thats not to say it ignores discos main depict: the music. Whether its Summers unbound performance of Last Dance in the L-Aset rarity Thank God its Friday( 1978 ), or John Travolta, as white-suited jiver Tony Manero, tearing it up to the Bee Gees Stayin Alive in the grittier-than-you-might remember Saturday Night Fever( 1978 ).

The centrepiece of and inspiration for the series is the new release of Derek Jarmans documentary Will You Dance With Me ?, which was shot in 1984 and remained unseen until it was unearthed in 2014, some 20 years after the directors demise. What Jarman captured doubleds as an absorbing, evocative period piece. The footage was originally intended as a place test for a forthcoming film to be directed by Jarmans friend Ron Peck, whod debuted in 1978 with the quietly landmark film Nighthawks, which also screens here and was one of the first films to depict lesbian life in a non-sensationalist route.

Ron Ron Pecks Nighthawks: the geography teacher hero cruises the disco scene. Photograph: Supplied

Shot on an Olympus camcorder at Benjys nightclub in east London, Will You Dance With Me? is a grab bag of poses, halting chattering, dancing of unmistakable aspiration but questionable quality, and( often stymied) attempts to get more than a handful of people on the dance floor at any one point while the upbeat DJ spins an esoteric selection featuring Soul Sonic Force and the Pointer Sisters.

The series is curated by Melissa Anderson, who is also a film critic for the Village Voice, and Amlie Garin-Davet. Anderson first assure Will You Dance With Me? in the spring of 2015, and was seduced by its charms. I cant think of another film, whether fiction or nonfiction, that so perfectly captures the flow of a night at a fag club, she tells me via email. The pauses and desultory conversation, the flirting and cruising, the anticipation of adventure( erotic or otherwise ), the rapture of represent one among many lost in the music.

Meanwhile, in the light of the recent homophobic shooting of patrons at Floridas Pulse nightclub, Will You Dance With Me? carries an extra, poignant charge. Its a smeary, neon-streaked vision of a blessed safe space in all its placid mundanity, its twinkling wavelengths of romantic hope and chance. Anderson concurs, citing the lesbian American novelist Frank OHara: Almost 30 years before Jarman shot Will You Dance with Me ?, OHara beautifully illuminated the thrill and abandon of dancing in a lesbian bar in his 1955 lyric At the Old Place. The refrain of the penultimate stanza is( Its heaven !) a notion that many films in this retrospective bear out.

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The roots of such dreamings are explored in Joesph Lovetts stylish and informative documentary Gay Sex in the 70 s, which is composed of uncovering first-person accounts of New York in the post-Stonewall, pre-Aids era. A ricochetting disco soundtrack is the binding agent for myriad narratives of wild hours on the West Side piers, the Roman baths, and fabled New York dance spots like the Loft and Paradise Garage. One of the very best films in the programme is Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which documents the musicians immersion into the disco scene.

Even though darkness is very much on the programmes agenda( assure the inclusion of bleak psychological dramas Klute and Looking For Mr Goodbar ), Dim All The Lights pointedly does not include William Friedkins salacious Cruising( 1980 ). This sordid S& M serial killer-thriller starring a sweaty, leather-chapped Al Pacino still rankles for its curtain-twitching pathologising of homosexuality. It does, however, find space for Nancy Walkers Cant Stop the Music, an uproariously camp, massively fictionalised origin tale of disco titans the Village People. The film, which incidentally edged out Cruising for the title of Worst Picture at the 1980 Golden Raspberry awardings, features an early turn from Caitlyn Jenner, as a buttoned-up lawyer who ends up switching the office and polyester suit for the dance floor and a fetching denim shorts and crop top combo: an indelible image.

I ask Anderson how she sees the diverse slate of films tying together. They reflect the utopian promise of disco during a decade the 1970 s that was defined by social and political advancements for marginalized groups, she tells. Disco, as Alice Echols points out in her excellent 2010 examine, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture , not only integrated nightlife among races, but also played an enormous role in fostering the new relationship lesbian men had to public space , now that they were no longer prohibited from dancing together.

Collectively, the films presume an affective, unexpectedly stately power: a multicultural, multi-gendered explosion of inclusivity, and the excavation of a hope-filled past.

Dim All The Lights: Disco and the Movies runs at Metrograph from 5-11 August

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