Rise: The Story of Rave Outlaw Disco Donny (2004) - PopMatters Film Review )

[26 January 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

The relationship between electronic music and drugs is an old one, dating back at least as far as the heady days of bacchanal excess in the old Studio 54, where the only thing people liked better than looking good and dancing to loud disco was snorting cocaine in the men’s room. Of course, cocaine is a bit out of the price range for most rave kids these days, so the drugs of choice have become cheaper: methamphetamines, pot, and of course, our old pal ecstasy.

So when ecstasy became Public Enemy #1 in the waning years of the 20th century, United States law enforcement saw that the best way to crack down on the drug was to crack down on dance music. The willfully eclectic and sybaritic club culture associated with electronic dance music invited a great deal of this trouble itself: why are people who participate in alternative social movements always so surprised when The Man tries to shut them down? The recent prosecution of dance music promoters under a rather liberal interpretation of 1980s crack-house laws represented a turning point in the perception of the music and the scene in the minds of many Americans: if it wasn’t the case before, electronic dance music have become inextricably associated with illegal narcotics. The scene, already enervated by the waning interest of fickle trendsters who graduated from Paul Oakenfold to Modest Mouse, has taken another body blow, this time courtesy of the federal government.

New Orleans dance promoter James D. Estopinal Jr., AKA Disco Donnie, was at the center of one of the first attempts to prosecute dance music culture in this country. He eventually won his case, with the help of the ACLU as well as the staunch support of the international dance music community, but there is no doubt in the minds of most that the scene is less than it once was. In the space of just a few years, Rise has become an unfortunate historical document, a chronicle of the American Rave scene at its height. The documentary presents a day in the life of one of the most successful independent music promoters in America, in addition to examining a cross-section of the many people who attend Donnie’s events. There are even cameos from a few of the celebrity DJs Donnie has worked with throughout the years, from electro mainstay Tommie Sunshine to turntable wizard Q-Bert to German trance icon Paul Van Dyk.

There’s something bittersweet about the realization that this scene will probably never be able to reconstitute itself on such a massive scale in the United States. Totally leaving aside the issue of government persecution, we are left with the fact that electronic music just never succeeded in becoming the mainstream concern that many had once envisioned. There will always be raves and underground parties, but perhaps independent promoters like Disco Donnie will be forced to content themselves, for the time being, with smaller events and diminishing returns.

The documentary succeeds in laying out a reasonable primer for anyone who has never before encountered the subculture. In a similar fashion to Michael Wadleigh’s epochal Woodstock (albeit on a much smaller scale), Rave provides a quintessential time capsule for an oft-misunderstood cultural movement. Of course, the problem with this film is that it was obviously completed prior to Donnie’s indictment and subsequent legal travails: as fascinating as it is to see a sympathetic examination of New Orleans rave culture, this story is only touched in a ten-minute appendix available as a bonus feature.

Rave is an interesting piece of filmmaking, which stands a good chance of becoming a treasured piece of our historical record, one of the few documentaries ever made on the subject of raves and electronic dance music culture in America. The unfortunate fact is that as good as the documentary is, it mostly fails to deliver on the subtitle’s promise to deliver “The Real Story of Disco Donnie”, and there will probably be many people disappointed by the film’s curiously cursory examination of the most pressing issues therein.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/rise-story-of-disco-donny-dvd/