Source: PBS

Review: 'Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution' Traces the Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Musical Style

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 2 MIN.

The excitement! The hair! The glittery clothes! The irresistible beats! The three-part PBS documentary "Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution" is less revolutionary than you might hope, but it serves as a nifty time capsule looking back at a musical genre that took the '70s by storm.

The doc's three episodes – "Rock the Boat," "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," and "Stayin' Alive" – sometimes seem to want to separate into a tripartite examination of the voices, the market, and the styles that disco came from and appealed to. This never quite happens, but the series remains an illuminating survey of the genre (or if you're old enough to remember that era, a strut down memory lane).

The first episode looks at how disco arose from R&B, soul, and gospel, while the second installment focuses on the rise of the "Black disco diva" singers like Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer, who rose to the top and stayed there while record labels eventually ruined everything by chasing what seemed, for a time, like a golden ticket to hitsville and churning out one-hit wonders. The third hour looks at this inevitable watering down of the genre's creative spirit but also looks (though not always quite straight-on, so to speak), at disco's gay appeal, with queer DJs, queer-coded styles and lyrics (hello, Village People), and club scenes.

Part three also touches on the AIDS crisis, and examines how white, straight America seemingly went berserk over the notion that disco could displace rock and roll. One commentator suggests that this response was not homophobic, but rather a kind of cultural turf battle; "Rock and roll was guitars," we hear, along with relaxed clothing and beer, whereas disco brought with it an entirely different set of sensibilities. (In the light of last year's Bud Light backlash, that assessment seems suspect.)

In any case, the backlash took the form of radio stations pulling publicity stunts like blowing up disco records, with one such event (at Chicago's Comisky park) slated to take place between games at a double header... only, the record-destroying frenzy got the crowd worked up to such a degree that a riot broke out and the second game had to be called off.

Still, disco prevailed, giving rise to other, now-familiar, forms of music.

You'll hear old favorites in this series, recall stars who shone steadily or who flamed out, hear from contemporary stars like Jake Shears about the genre's impact, and pick up a few juicy pointers about the social and political context that surrounded disco. You might also wonder what exciting new art forms today's tumult and upheaval will bring. As one commentator puts it, "When life gets hard, you party harder."

"Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution" premiered June 20 on PBS. New episodes will follow weekly.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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