The Godfather of Disco
2007Director: Gene Graham
Cast: Mel Cheren
he problem with biographical documentaries made by filmmakers who adore their subjects is the tendency toward hagiography. Even when there's often a token attempt to show a dark side, it often seems embarrassingly VH1. The Godfather of Disco, about West End Records co-founder Mel Cheren, is certainly reverent toward its hero. No dark side here, and no special insight into his personality. Fortunately, the movie is more than a biodoc: there's insight into his culture.
A music bizzer since the ‘50s, Cheren spent his nights in dance clubs as disco boomed. In 1976, he and Ed Kushins formed West End, a label specializing in “danceable R&B.;” In the on-screen interviews, Cheren is engaging, with stories to tell about everybody from the New York disco scene. But, as it must be sadly noted, he is a prime film subject partly because he's one of the few still alive to tell the tale.
Among those long-passed are two names inextricable from Cheren's: Michael Brody and Larry Levan. The movie describes, misty-eyed, how Cheren met the “nice Jewish kid” Brody back when homosexuality was a disorder, long before disco. They were no longer lovers by 1976, when the former lent the latter money to the latter to start the Paradise Garage. Brody hoped his club, with Levan as the DJ, would be a haven for the gay elite. The regular crowd turned out to be much more racially, socially and sexually eclectic. Viewers used to seeing screen reconstructions of the era revolving around straight white people taking too much blow should be grateful for the reminder that gay men and African-Americans were at the center of disco (and also took too much blow), which is one reason haters tried so hard to prove that disco sucked. Lovers described the experience in religious terms, the crowd playing congregation to the telepathic Levan, considered the greatest of DJs as well as a groundbreaking remixer. If the film's conflation of West End and Paradise is a little misleading—Levan would throw songs by artists from Cher to Talking Heads into his mix—the two legends were definitely symbiotic.
Gene Graham directs with some style, livening up the usual still photo zoom-and-pan with color and collage. He also does an excellent job of rhythmically editing the eager testimonials from those who were there at the time, ranging from Village Person Randy Jones to Marley Marl. To many, the time of their lives may have been during the Garage's zenith in the early 80s, by which time all but the most self-parodying disco had been backlashed out of the mainstream. Like any style of music, disco was fated to fade. The new generation of African-American individualists were busy building hip hop, a genre with which it seems like West End should've been involved; it wasn't. And then of course there was the AIDS tragedy, which killed one after another of Cheren's friends, notably Brody in 1986, soon after the Garage's last party. Levan died in 1992 of endocarditis, likely caused by drug use.
The doc shows footage from Levan's memorial, including stirring words from Cheren. Also detailed is Mel's AIDS activism, which is admirable but uncinematic. The movie is best during its middle section, where one song after another comes on, and fans of varying fame express their enthusiasm in turn. Whether the music is consistently good is questionable: arguments still rage over whether the out-of-tune vocals on Loose Joints' “Is It All Over My Face?” are endearing or irritating. But there's no question about West End's two stone classics, neither of which is strictly disco: the Levan-produced “Don't Make Me Wait,” by the Peech Boys, and the Levan-remixed “Heartbeat,” by Taana Gardner. The latter seems familiar now, but the Paradise dancers didn't know what to make of its leisurely, inevitable groove at first; Levan kept playing it until it stuck. The dubby “Don't Make Me Wait” is even weirder. With its desperation for pleasure, it's hard not to see it as fin de siècle. But no, that's just Levan's perfectionism acting as a more than adequate substitute for depth. In the Garage, it seemed that perfect moment would last forever.
The Godfather of Disco is currently touring the film festival circuit.
By: Brad Luen
Published on: 2007-07-16