When one thinks about music and film, the leitmotif from the Bond soundtrack or “The Imperial March” in Star Wars are the first examples that spring to mind. Rarely do we think of dance music as a genre ingrained within the DNA of film composition; however there are a few significant examples that not only went on to generate mainstream success, but also broke down the barriers of injustice and stigma.
Saturday Night Fever
The release of “Saturday Night Fever” in 1977 sent disco shockwaves across the world, igniting the birth of a genre that would go on to dominate the airwaves. With an A-list cast, the film thrust disco under the mainstream spotlight, using its compelling polyrhythms of nascent Latin American salsa and pulses of Philadelphia soft soul to drown out the voices of discontent. Directed by John Badham, and scored by The Bee Gees, the film went on to gross over $30 million dollars in sales, aided by smash hits “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever; helping it on its way to become one of the biggest selling soundtracks of all time.
Though disco was on the rise in the USA, with bands like Chic and Earth, Wind and Fire topping the charts and imbuing the airwaves with their four-on-the-floor beats, the accompanying urban nightlife culture developed a far more volatile relationship with mainstream America. Before bands like The Temptations jived into the limelight, disco and its philosophy had been forced to exist underground; as a result of the racial and social prejudice towards homosexuality and African American culture. It was actually illegal until 1971 in New York City for two men to dance with one another, underlining the hostility ingrained within the zeitgeist at the time.
However over 10 years on from the 1964 civil rights act, the prominence of Disco music as a social and cultural force reached a pinnacle point in the late 1970s, with the formation of the Gay and Women’s Rights movements adding more heat and pressure to an already bubbling pot of tension; but the activists would soon come to find out that a little fire is quickly trodden out.
Though most of the country chose to conducted their bias in private or with purposeful subtleties, others acted on this conspicuous resentment with public displays of animosity. In July 1979, thousands gathered at Comiskey Park stadium in Chicago to watch the White Sox vs the Detroit Tigers, with many attending to witness the public incineration of disco records that would ensue after the game had finished; as promised by local shock jock Steve Dahl of WLUP.
In an event later dubbed as “Disco Demolition Night“, the incident triggered a nationwide expression of anger against disco and its purveyors, causing the genre to recede quickly from the public eye. As the 1980’s dawned, the media had succeeded in quelling its popularity, emphasising its roots in gay culture, and in turn creating another hate-fuelled and scaremongering rhetoric that would follow into the turn of the decade.
Many have since affirmed that the event in question stands as one of the most expressive examples of racism and homophobia in American music history. In hindsight, journalists have offered up the theory that its demise was down to an attempt to scapegoat gay men, African Americans and women for the government persistent failures.
Though disco supposedly died on the night of July 12th, the movement stimulated a number of revolutionary changes both politically and musically, rousing a progress in social liberation, with its core sonic values going on to build the foundations for many forms of contemporary dance music; inspiring the likes of Daft Punk, Dua Lipa & Mark Ronson to stardom.
Following the story of a successful techno DJ, Berlin Calling pays homage to electronic music’s last taboo surrounding the topic of mental health. After putting his body and mind through years of extensive substance abuse, our protagonist suffers a mental breakdown and is soon admitted to a psychiatric hospital to undergo treatment. The ensuing storyline observes the combatant (DJ Paul Kalkbrenner) constructing his new album from within the facility whilst continuing to struggle in a battle against his own hedonistic mind.
This film not only underlines the psychological pressures and physical demands of the industry, it claims to be a universal portrait of the modern tortured artist, normalising the agitated melancholia associated with our own mental fragility. Now more than ever this subject is at the fore of many discussions, fuelled by the crippling uncertainty caused by the pandemic. To remedy this, many turn to excessive drinking or taking substances in order to numb the pain of being fastened inside.
This cult classic strived to break the stigma of addiction and the bi-product of mental instability, using its platform to normalise human instability and to promote the notion that self-care and therapy are the best mediums in which to escape the abyss of depression and disparity.
The records burned in Chicago were in reaction to the rise of a minority into the mainstream. Today, racial discrimination still exists in modern society, highlighted by the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and most recently the racial abuse suffered by sportsmen and women on social media in the UK. Similarly, Berlin Calling personifies the current and chronic mental delicacy of humankind, with a CDC report in June of last year stating that elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation were reported by adults in the United States.
While the two films may have stark differences in genre, culture and provenance, they both used their platform to represent greater issues within society that are still relevant today, and only time will tell when the next example will arise.