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Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution


New three-part docuseries explores the brief-but-powerful history of disco

In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss disco music as one of the many fads that emerged and then quickly faded away during the 1970s, along with pet rocks, mood rings, water beds and lava lamps.

Yet that doesn’t do justice to a unique musical genre that topped the charts and cut a wide swath of influence throughout popular culture, ranging from movies (who can deny the popularity of Saturday Night Fever and its many wannabes?) to fashion and beyond.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution on PBS. Pictured: Nightclubbing at Paradise Garage in New York City.
Tina Paul/BBC/PBS

Disco did not emerge fully formed, but was the result from an evolutionary process that took the music from small, underground dance clubs to worldwide acclaim — only to disappear almost as quickly as it arrived after being hit with hate-fuelled backlash.

Over the course of three fascinating episodes, a new PBS docuseries delves into the history of this much-maligned musical genre, from its origins to its demise to, ultimately, its lasting legacy.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution on PBS. Pictured: Disco pioneers LaBelle (left to right): Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash and Vicki Wickham.
Val Wilmer/BBC/PBS

“Charting disco from its inception and global domination to the violent attempts to end the genre, Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution reclaims its roots,” said PBS’ Sylvia Bugg of the series, a coproduction of PBS and BBC. “Before commercialization, discothèques belonged to the marginalized and the dispossessed, who tapped into the beat-driven music and the disco scene in a battle for community, identity and inclusivity.”

The BBC’s Jonathan Rothery wadded, “There’s no doubt that disco had an enormous impact — not just on the musical landscape at the time of its emergence and far beyond, but as a social and cultural force for change. This documentary series from BBC Studios, which the BBC has supported together with PBS, will highlight many new or untold stories of the genre.”

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution on PBS. Pictured: As Studio 54’s resident DJ, Nicky Siano (right) kept his finger on the pulse of new disco sounds.

The series kicks off this week with “Rock the Boat,” an episode that takes a deep dive into disco’s roots — how it emerged from a basic desire for inclusion, visibility and freedom among the persecuted Black, gay and minority ethnic communities of New York City. First finding life in NYC’s loft apartments and basement bars, a new generation of DJs and musicians — including the likes of David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Francis Grasso and Earl Young (The Trammps) — pioneered a distinct sound and a new way of spinning records.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution on PBS. Pictured: Larry Levan (centre) of NYC nightclub Paradise Garage was considered to be one of the city’s most influential DJs.
David Depino/PBS

The second episode, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” is set against the backdrop of the Black power movement and the sexual liberation of the era, revisiting the high watermark of disco in the mid-1970s. As disco became mainstream, Black women and gay men transformed into music superstars, creating a bold new world where drag queen Sylvester was king while setting the stage for the emergence of the “disco diva,” characterized by Gloria Gaynor, Candi Staton, Donna Summer and Thelma Houston.

As disco became further popularized, the success of The Bee GeesSaturday Night Fever soundtrack album, The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” and Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” repackaged the sound, allowing it to be embraced by a new audience of straight, white males who put on their boogie shoes and hit the dance floor. 

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution on PBS. Pictured: Studio 54 was New York’s hottest disco club in the late 1970s.
Bill Bernstein/BBC/PBS

The series wraps up on Tuesday, July 2 with the final episode, “Stayin’ Alive,” which documents the wellspring of resentment that erupted from a white, male-dominated faction of rock fans who spearheaded the “Disco Sucks” movement, which culminated at the infamous “Disco Demolition Derby” at Comiskey Park Stadium in Chicago, where organizers destroyed thousands of disco records in front of a rabid audience of baseball fans.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution on PBS. Pictured: David Mancuso, whose influential “by invitation only” dance parties were the spawning grounds for disco.
Pat Bates/BBC/PBS

Meanwhile, the hedonism and sexual liberation celebrated by disco came to a screeching halt at the onset of the AIDS crisis, pushing disco out of the mainstream and back into the dance clubs where it originated.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution also underscores disco’s survival. After being co-opted by the commercial mainstream to become a force to be reckoned with on radio and in record stores, when disco was pushed back into the underground, the music didn’t die, but evolved into an electronic dance sound that laid the foundations for today’s contemporary dance culture.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution, airing Tuesday, June 18 on WTVS and KCTS

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