The Secret Disco Revolution Theorizes on “Party Songs”


There’s a brain-frying moment in writer-director Jamie Kastner’s flawed, mildly entertaining documentary The Secret Disco Revolution in which members of the Village People vehemently deny that double entendres run rampant in songs like “In the Navy” and “YMCA.” “They were just party songs,” insists the exasperated Construction Worker. “There was no innuendo.” Group delusion turns mean-spirited when the Native American sniffs, “Those guys [songwriter-producer Henri Belolo and the group’s late impresario, Jacques Morali] couldn’t write a double entendre.” Cut to Belolo explaining that the late, openly gay Morali definitely and pointedly worked to bring post-Stonewall liberated queer maleness to the mainstream with his most popular creation. That moment crackles in the film, pushing this doc beyond its uneasy blend of academic theorizing (most powerfully from cultural critic Alice Echols, author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture) and camp connective tissue. But everything wheezes under a framing conceit that features an otherworldly Mod Squad-style trio meant to represent the mystical force that the film imagines brought disco to Earth; they’re shown flipping through a manifesto whose chapter titles kick off exploration of each thematic twist in the film. Kastner’s thesis (old hat for disco fans and scholars) is that disco was a revolutionary cultural movement right up until industry greed gutted its subversive impulse and artistry, a movement whose soldiers (singers, producers, the teeming bodies in clubs) unconsciously waged war on the white, hetero, male center of rock and pop culture. Interestingly, few of his interview subjects—who include singers Martha Wash and KC of the Sunshine Band, and various producers and DJs—agree. The film isn’t as smart on the issue of race as it needs to be, and its feminist read of the music and scene feels forced in places, but as an entry-level conversation starter, it gets the job done. And Gloria Gaynor and Vicki Sue Robinson look amazing.