"There's something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck." - Chloë Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco....
Criterion / 113 Minutes / 1998 / Rated R / Street Date: July 24, 2012
For years I worked as a part-time disc jockey, doing wedding receptions and private parties of all kinds. While the heyday of disco had long since passed when I was spinning vinyl on my Technics SLP-1200 turntable — yes, this was around the advent of CDs — I still had frequent requests for selections from Chic, Donna Summer and the Village People. Even today, if you go to a wedding reception, chances are you’ll still hear the DJ break out a gem like “YMCA” or “Celebration” to get the crowd going. So the title of director Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco may be something of a misnomer, since disco music still seems to be alive and well, even if only on a limited basis. The third entry in the director’s so-called “comedy of manners” trilogy that began with Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), 1998’s The Last Days of Disco is based on Stillman’s own experiences frequenting various New York disco nightclubs in the early 1980s such as Studio 54. Using the waning days of the disco craze as a backdrop, Stillman has effectively made a movie that once again skewers and satirizes the very people and culture he’s so fondly depicted
Admittedly, I wasn’t as blown away by Stillman’s earlier efforts. Like certain auteurs whose work is something of an acquired taste — such as David Mamet or David Lynch, to name two obvious examples — Stillman’s talking-head films either click with you or they don’t. While I didn’t dislike Metropolitan or Barcelona, neither film really grabbed me. They both seemed to be noble efforts filled with characters that were equally pretentious and condescending. But The Last Days of Disco struck an instant chord with me. Maybe it was all the familiar period dance hits that peppered the soundtrack, but unlike his previous efforts, I also think the characters in Disco were more readily identifiable. After all, I never was a preppy who attended an Ivy League school like the folks in Metropolitan and I certainly haven’t traveled to Spain like the characters in Barcelona. But I was known to frequent dance clubs during the ‘80s with friends, so I had more of an immediate connection with the group dynamic in this final entry in the trilogy. The movie also greatly benefits from the presence of co-stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevingy in two of the actresses’ earliest leading roles.
Loosely chronicling the early days of decadence and depravity in the 1980s, the story pivots around Alice Kinnon (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale), two Hampshire College graduates who are now working at a publishing company in Manhattan. While the two are acquaintances of convenience, it’s clear they’re not exactly close friends, as the snooty Charlotte is often coldly critical of Alice’s relationships … or lack thereof. During their off-hours they frequent an elaborate dance club reminiscent of Studio 54 where they meet friends and would-be lovers over drinks and amidst the pounding backbeat of disco music. Alice is perceived as the “nice” one: quiet, smart and unassuming, while Charlotte is brazenly conceited and self-absorbed. Of course, first impressions can be deceiving. As the film progresses, Alice begins to take some of Charlotte’s unsolicited advice to heart, and she boldly decides to sleep with a young lawyer named Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard) who she has had her eye on at the club. This new, adventurous Alice, however, is far different from the demure and intelligent Alice that Tom was first attracted to, and this creates a rift between them. Meanwhile, the self-assured Charlotte displays a surprising softer side when she suspects she might be pregnant after a tryst with her new love interest, Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin).
Despite Alice’s misgivings, she eventually agrees to share an apartment at Charlotte’s urging with a third roommate named Holly (Tara Subkoff), since none of the three women can afford something on their own. But living with Charlotte’s constant criticisms and snide comments 24/7 eventually wears Alice down. Alice distracts herself after the failed romance with Tom by bouncing between two new potential romantic interests — Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), a womanizer who works at the club everyone frequents; and Josh Neff (Matt Keeslar), a quietly intense guy who’s actually secretly investigating some illegal activities at the very same club. Granted, much of the movie plays like a soap opera set to disco music, but there’s something compelling about the aura and atmosphere of The Last Days of Disco that makes it extremely watchable. It’s easily Stillman’s most accomplished and accessible work to date, which begs the question as to why he hasn’t directed anything since. Like another period film that simply used its time and setting to provide a point of reference — Richard Linklater’s great Dazed and Confused — Stillman doesn’t beat us over the head with disco fashion or references … it’s enough simply to have songs like Chic’s “Le Freak” and Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” playing in the background to make the connection. That, and the characters’ endless banter about which clubs and restaurants are the best in New York.
Stillman also manages not to wholly canonize the disco era or New York nightlife in general, either — despite the alluring glitz and glamour of places like Studio 54. Indeed, such places were also dens for promiscuous sex, money laundering, violence and heavy drug use. All of these are either suggested or prominently displayed in The Last Days of Disco, although the central characters seem oddly untainted by them. It’s clear Stillman has fond memories of the period, but he also doesn’t seem interested in basking in sentimentality, either. Given its detached and almost clinical depiction of life during the oft-cited “me” decade, The Last Days of Disco could be viewed as an idealistic and sanitized bookend to Mary Harron’s biting dark comedy American Psycho — a film that also sets out to capture the shallow and empty milieu of life in New York in the 1980s. (It’s probably not coincidental that both films also star Chloë Sevigny.) In fact, several of the characters here — most notably the cynical Des McGrath — sound like they could be one of Patrick Bateman’s buddies, sitting around a posh dinner table discussing whose business card is the more elegant. Only in The Last Days of Disco, it’s a group of publishing employees and advertising agents instead of Wall Street drones and they’re more concerned with getting into the newest hot spot than with the look of their business cards. Shallow is shallow, no matter how you slice it.
Video: How Does The Disc Look?
The film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill the 1.78:1 frame and is presented in a very impressive 1080p transfer. This is a remarkably pristine and well-preserved transfer for an 14-year-old film with solid color balance and saturation levels and not a sign of bleeding or smearing. There were no noticeable blemishes or specks on the source print and the image quality remained very clear and discernible. Details such as the sparkling tinsel-like confetti that falls from the ceiling inside the dance club at one point and the sequins in one of Alice’s blouses all looked sharp and well-defined. Black levels remained deep, dark and inky; and there were no obvious signs of compression artifacts, macroblocking or edge enhancement.
Audio: How Does The Disc Sound?
Likewise, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound mix here delivers a deep and resonant surround experience with discrete effects, crystal-clear midrange and high end, and a deep bottom end effectively replicating the booming sound within the confines of the disco. Apparently The Last Days of Disco had been out of print on video due to legal issues over the use of the many original disco songs used throughout the film, and it’s good to see they’ve not only remained intact, but have been given a nice audio upgrade to boot. Criterion’s mix provides an ample soundstage for the thumping sounds of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Chic’s “Good Times,” and The O’Jays’ “Love Train.” Dialogue remains crisp and concise through the center-channel mix while directional cues are also delivered through both the front stereo and rear surround channels. Ambient sounds and echoes from the throng of dancers within the nightclub also fill out the rear channels nicely.
English SDH subtitles are included.
Supplements: What Goodies Are There?
First up is a fascinating screen-specific audio commentary with writer/director Whit Stillman and actors Chloë Sevigny and Chris Eigeman, recorded earlier this year in New York. All three provide some interesting anecdotes about the production, but Stillman offers the most insightful comments about casting, his ideas for the film, and the all-important song selections that pepper the film’s soundtrack. Sevigny tends to play the lesser role here while Eigeman, who appeared in all three of Stillman’s films and clearly has a great rapport with the director, is much more animated and forthcoming.
Next is a collection of four deleted scenes including Wild Kingdom (1:54), Des’s Last Testament (2:25), Nightcap (1:29) and Scabrous Manuscript (2:22). Several of these take place in Des’ unseen apartment and follow a dropped subplot idea. Viewing them with the optional commentary with Stillman provides a greater explanation of what the director intended. Much of this deals with the relationship between Alice and Des and also delves into how Des has been writing a book about the events taking place at the club, much in the same way that Stillman himself wrote a novel based on the events depicted in the film. While not intrinsic to the movie, it’s interesting to see what might have been.
Speaking of Whit Stillman’s novel, next up is an audio-only novel reading (17:22) in which the author himself reads the epilogue “Life Among the Moon Worshippers” from his novel The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, published in 2000. Stillman explains how the novel expands upon the events in the film and this epilogue follows both Jimmy and Des after their final cab ride scene in the movie. In some ways, listening to this novelized sequel had me wanting to see a film follow-up tracing the lives of all the key cast members.
The lone featurette (5:49) offered here is presented as a typical EPK-type affair including interviews with Stillman and his cast discussing the making of the movie. All of the actors and actresses are very complimentary of Stillman and seemed to have enjoyed working with him. Stillman doesn’t offer much here of value, however — at least nothing that isn’t covered in his informative commentary. There’s also a collection of 34 production photographs in the stills gallery with captions provided by Stillman, and the film’s original theatrical trailer (2:14).
Recreating a period in time that not only was known for the last vestiges of disco music but also for the end of the yuppie era, writer-director Whit Stillman fashioned yet another sharp social satire with The Last Days of Disco, the third entry in his so-called “comedy of manners” trilogy. This is easily his best and most accomplished directorial effort and the film uses the setting and atmosphere of a Studio 54-like dance club to examine the cultural milieu of a young group of singles living in New York. If you love the film, investing in this Blu-ray upgrade is a no-brainer: do it.