Clubbing on the big screen
As Eden shows, it’s possible for film-makers to capture club culture, yet so many still spectacularly miss the mark
When it comes to capturing the essence of club culture, there are plenty of examples of other media getting it right. For instance, there are many great documentaries about clubbing and dance music. From Scratch on the art of turntablism to the fantastic Paris Is Burning about the New York drag scene and vogue balls, clubland has proved to be fertile ground for those who want to document what is happening under the mirrorballs and strobe lights. Even the theatre has had a decent cut at club culture, with Raymond Scannell’s Deep and his protrayal of deep house langer Larry Lehane brilliantly capturing life on and off the dancefloor.
For some reason, though, it’s a much different set of circumstances when DJs and clubbers encounter scripts and films. Perhaps it’s the need to exaggerate everything for the big screen, but it’s the excesses which end up amplified and highlighted to the detriment of everything else. Film just doesn’t appear to take clubland seriously. Instead of finding the human dramas which occur when groups of people from different backgrounds come together on the dancefloor, film prefers to use clubs as backdrops and the basis for caricatures. When it comes to clubs and films, you get Kevin & Perry Go Large, Human Traffic and It’s All Gone Pete Tong, films where the characters and settings are largely played for laughs. No-one is denying that clubland isn’t home to a serious amount of larging it behaviour, but surely some film-maker can go a little deeper?
All of which makes Eden, the new flick from Mia Hansen-Love, set in the Parisian club scene of the 1990s and currently showing in cinemas nationwide, a bit of an exception. It’s not just the fact that it comes with a superb soundtrack of warm-hearted house and garage tunes or the lovely way in which Hansen-Love captures Daft Punk’s entry into that scene or even how the various clubs of that era are perfectly caught by the camera. What really makes Eden zing is the fact that it takes club culture seriously, in terms of both the highs which happen on the dancefloor and the lows which linger long after the music stops and the venue lights are switched on. Both emotions are important – the euphoria of being in the moment with your favourite music being played on a massive sound system and the melancholic reality of the comedown the morning after when you realise that life has to go on with all its ennui and mundanities.
The central character Paul is a bit of a lost soul, a would-be writer whose love for soulful garage and house sees him become a full-time DJ and promoter. He rises through the ranks, gets to play shows in New York, hobnob with Chicago producers, book his favourite singers (there’s a very funny scene involving singer India which will ring true with anyone who has dealt with placating visiting acts and their hotel suite requirements) and basically have what looks like a fabulous old time of it.
But it’s often a much different story behind the scenes and Eden gets what’s often the other side of thus hedonistic, glamorous lifestyle bang on. Away from DJ-ing and clubbing, Paul has huge debts, a debilitating cocaine habit, a messy love life is complicated and – worse of all – he’s not getting any younger. His unwillingness to accept that his dreams are over and that the life he wants is not to be is something applicable to more than just clubbing. A gorgeous, graceful flick with a fantastic soundtrack.
It will be interesting to see if the other clubbing movie of the summer is cut from similar cloth. Judging by the trailer, though, We Are Your Friends looks like a horse of a different colour. The plotlines may be similar – Zac Efron is Cole, an aspiring DJ and producer in Max Joseph’s flick and the film tracks his rise to promenience – but we’re talking a film cast in the larger-than-life EDM scene rather than the underground French Touch scene.
While we wait for We Are Your Friends to appear, there are ample examples in the clubs-on-celluloid back-catalogue to show what happens when film-makers decide to bring their cameras into dance clubs. You could always start with Saturday Night Fever, the film which made John Travolta a star. Based on the magazine article Tribal Rites of the new Saturday Night by Derry journalist Nik Cohn, the film captures Travolta as Tony Manero shaking off the dead-end ennui and boredom of his day-job by strutting his stuff as king of the dancefloor at 2001 Odyssey. Add in gang violence, Catholic guilt, moody mincing from Travolta, a lot of speed and a top soundtrack with the Bee Gees to the fore and you’ve a old-school whopper on your hands.
The Last Days of Disco is Whit Stillman’s flick set in the New York disco scene of the early 1980s. There’s probably more talking going on here than ever happened at Studio 54, but that’s Stillman for you. Instead of the drug and sex-crazed boogie nights usually associated with the disco era, this social dramedy focuses on a couple of college graduates, played by Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, making their way in the big bad world world and sweet-talking their way past the velvet ropes. Again, a great soundtrack, with Chic, Sister Sledge, O’Jays and Diana Ross to the fore. And it was way, way better than 54, Mark Christopher’s film set in Steve Rubello’s infamous club starring Ryan Philippe, Neve Campbell, Mike Myers and Salma Hayek.
For a decent look at clubbing on this side of the Atlantic, best dig out Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. A docudrama about the late, great Tony Wilson, the TV reporter who established Factory Records and worked with Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, its club link comes from Wilson’s involvement with Manchester’s infamous Hacienda. The scenes involving Steve Coogan as Wilson overseeing the mayhem in the club as acid house and ecstasy take hold are a reminder of the potent power those forces possessed.
Berlin Calling is an interesting entry into the list, the flick which introduced the then unknown Paul Kalkbrenner as an actor and especially superstar producer who was responsible for the film’s soundtrack. The story of a producer Ickarus and his travails in clubland, Berlin Calling’s footage from festivals and sleazy underground clubs is as accurate a portrayal of dancefloor madness as any feature film has captured.
And then, there’s the rest. Go from 1998 is a pretty decent crime caper and Tarantino homage from Doug “The Bourne Identify” Liman set in and around a rave in a Los Angeles warehouse. The highlights, if you could call them that, feature Sarah Polley and Katie Holmes flogging aspirin to naïve clubbers and a servicable soundtrack from Brian Transeau.
It’s All Gone Pete Tong, the 2003 movie about an Ibiza superstar DJ who finds he’s gone deaf after too many nights larging it, has some heady club scenes, cameos from plenty of DJ stars of the early Naughties (including Pete Tong and Carl Cox) and a surreal encounter with a giant badger. Meanwhile, the less said about 1999’s Human Traffic (Trainspotting set in Cardiff) and especially 2000’s awful Kevin & Perry Go Large(lairy teenagers on the loose in Ibiza superclub Amnesia) the better. Perhaps We Are Your Friends might not be so bad after all.