Reviews

'54': A Tame Look at an Era that was Anything but Tame

Mark Christopher's 54 has little to say about Studio 54, New York in the '70s, or anything else.


54

Director: Mark Christopher
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Mike Myers
Distributor: Lionsgate
Studio: Miramax
Release date: 2012-03

From all accounts, Studio 54 was a happening place in the late '70s. If you were cool enough to make it past the doormen, you were admitted to a magical world where glitter and intoxicants (legal and otherwise) flowed freely. The dance floor was filled with beautiful people, and you might catch a glimpse of a celebrity like Andy Warhol or Truman Capote. Studio 54 was not merely one nightclub among many, but a venue that captured the mix of high and low that was a key aspect of the New York City zeitgeist of the period. It was not only the worst of times (in 1975 the city was essentially bankrupt) but also the best of times, a period marked by great creativity in popular culture (e.g., hip-hop was developing in the Bronx while disco ruled Manhattan).

A legendary nightclub that flourished during a richly creative period in popular music—doesn't that sound like a great topic for a film? It does indeed, but the great movie about Studio 54 has yet to be made. It's certainly not 54, written and directed by Mark Christopher, and released in 1998, the same year as Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco. Stillman's film is more interesting than 54, but treats the club scene as a backdrop; in contrast, 54 places Studio 54 at the center of its story, yet still fails to capture the feel of either the club or the era. More damning, it also fails to tell a story of any particular interest, leaving the viewer with some well-executed set-pieces held together only by a lot of wishful thinking.

It's not entirely Christopher's fault, because the released version of 54 is quite different from what he originally presented to Miramax. Most notably, the original version of the film included a gay subplot that received negative reactions from screening audiences. That portion of the film was cut, new scenes were shot, and the result is a second-rate version of Saturday Night Fever that retains the central storyline, but loses nearly everything else of importance. Lest you think 54 might profit from a little reflected glory, let me assure you that this comparison mainly serves to remind you how well Saturday Night Fever captured the feeling of lives lived by young people in a particular time and place, and how utterly 54 fails at the same task. The comparison also reminds you that Ryan Phillippe may be cute, but he's no John Travolta.

Phillippe, who was nominated for a Razzie on the strength of this performance, plays Shane O'Shea, a teenager from New Jersey who gets lucky on the Studio 54 line and is invited past the velvet ropes on the strength of his buff physique. Shane's abs, and his naïvete (or essential goodness, if you're willing to take the film's word for it) facilitates his rapid rise within Studio 54. He becomes a busboy, then a bartender, and leaves home to move in with two friends working at the club: aspiring singer Anita (Salma Hayek) and her husband Greg (Breckin Meyer).

Shane develops a crush on a soap opera actress (Neve Campbell), only to learn that (alert the media!) sometimes people do things for their careers that they're not terribly proud of. Manager Steve Rubell (Mike Myers, in the most impressive performance of the film) is arrested and goes to jail. An elderly club regular, Disco Dottie (Ellen Albertini Dow), dies on the dance floor, bringing the party momentarily to a halt. We're meant to believe that observing other people's tribulations causes Shane to grow up, but either Phillippe is incapable of conveying such complexity, or the film was simply so butchered that this essential character development got lost along the way. The end result is that 54 feels like a dutiful re-enactment with the expected celebrity "cameos" (look, there's an actor playing Andy Warhol!) and enough references to real historical events to keep you hoping for more substance and fewer lazy clichés.

The overall attitude 54 takes toward its subject reminds me of the late George Hickenlooper's attempts to deal with the Warhol scene in Factory Girl. Despite high production values and a committed performance from Sienna Miller, Factory Girl failed, in large part because the director was more concerned with hammering home his moral judgments on the characters (you can almost hear him clucking his tongue in the background) than in telling a story about them. 54 has a similar vibe: it pretends to commemorate a nightclub, and an era, noted for excess, yet doesn't have enough courage to really embrace that ethos. Instead, the film comes off like a high-budget cautionary tale, concerned that if it shows anything attractive about Studio 54, some young and innocent viewer might be corrupted and stray from the path of righteousness.

The end result is just sad: a film so timid and afraid to offend anyone that it ends up communicating virtually nothing about the club, the era, or anything else. Apart from the inevitable dullness of such a treatment, it can't be historically accurate: Rubell wasn't pulling in millions a year because no one was having a good time at Studio 54.

The extras package on the Blu-ray release is quite skimpy, consisting of an uninvolving music video of "If You Could Read My Mind" and trailers for several other films that have cast members in common with 54.

3

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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