Keith Haring’s portrait of the DJ Larry Levan
In the history of popular music, disco and dance culture generally get a raw deal when it comes to talking about of social change. Sure, some massive changes happened in the Sixties, but to paraphrase Nile Rodgers, the Seventies was when people started to enjoy their new social freedoms. It was an age that saw huge breakdowns of race, class, sexual and social boundaries that were not just confined to small social groups, and much of this was down to the disco and party scenes.
Maestro, a 2002 documentary by the director Josell Ramos, tells the story of the legendary New York club the Paradise Garage, and its equally legendary resident DJ Larry Levan. Levan is often cited as being the best DJ of all time, particularly by some of the most popular DJs in the world, and the music he played at his club spawned a whole genre named in its honour. The Garage’s cultural and musical legacy has been global, influencing some of the world’s best known nightspots, but Maestro is also careful to explain where the roots of the club and the world that developed around it lay - in the seminal underground New York nightspots of the very late Sixties and early 70s.
Levan in the DJ booth at the Paradise Garage
Many of the characters still left standing from the era are interviewed in the film. Among these is David Mancuso, whose own private loft parties in his living space kick-started the serious dancing scene and gave birth to the modern idea of clubbing..There is the late Francis Grasso, the first man to ever mix two records back in the late 60s at the Sanctuary; Nicky Siano, who in 1972 and still a teenager opened the night spot the Gallery; Frankie Knuckles of Chicago’s Warehouse (the birthplace of garage music’s broodier twin house), reminiscences on his close childhood friend Levan with stories that are both funny and sad. Most movingly of all respected DJ and remixer Francois Kevorkian remembers how the AIDS epidemic swept through his social circle killing many of his friends and decimating the party scene.
The Paradise Garage was a true melting pot where black, white, gay, straight, male, female, old and young mixed, got high, danced, and had sex. The footage of the Garage, the Sanctuary and the Loft in Maestro is great, and really makes you want to grab a time machine to visit these incredible parties. While this film is flawed, it’s good to have the story of this era told from the perspective of the people who were there and helped shape it. Oh, and needless to say, the music is FANTASTIC: