DISCO LADY (1978)

The problem with most New Year’s Eve movies is that they’re going to become much more bittersweet as the world changes and our connectivity is more virtual than it is real. These days, loading into the middle of the city on New Year’s Eve with a bunch of inebriated strangers just doesn’t have the same appeal that it once did (if “appeal” is what you choose to call it). So maybe watching a movie featuring a giant crowd of people ringing in the new year in the center of a metropolis will be a memory that’s too much to bear. And maybe this is why Disco Lady (1978) feels like it’s ripe for the conversation to come regarding New Year’s Eve movies that half-assedly celebrate the unofficial holiday. You want a New Year’s Eve movie that absolutely cannot look like a New Year’s Eve movie because it was shot for $5,000 and over the course of two nights? Disco Lady is your gal.

At 59 minutes long, Disco Lady comes on more like a half-remembered dream/nightmare than it does a movie. Meandering amid a group of characters who are introduced sporadically, there doesn’t really seem to be any central character in the film; just a hazy hour of various people buzzing around the central location of the Disco Lady, a dance club that is the hottest ticket in town. Rhonda Jo Petty makes her debut as Carla, a hitchhiker who is picked up by the Candyman (Alan Colberg), and taken to Disco Lady to be immediately pimped out to a john. Sherry (Ming Jade) and Angie (Angel Ducharme), two dateless girls out looking for a good time, show up at the club just as a car full of Travolta-like haircuts arrive, including Johnny (Rob Rose) and Tony (Mike Ranger). Rounding out the first group of partygoers is Ric Lutze and Robin Savage as a couple who are celebrating their anniversary by Lutze being almost literally dragged to the club by Savage.

As a porn-rip off, Disco Lady doesn’t really bear much resemblance to Saturday Night Fever in the same way that, say, National Lamporn’s Frat House or 8 to 4 do a better-than-decent job aping National Lampoon’s Animal House and 9 to 5, respectively. Sure, Scorpio Sal (Ken Scudder in a non-sex role) is hilariously riffing on SNF’s polyester look-loving Monty, but the closest thing this thing gets to SNF is the resemblance between Rhonda Jo Petty and Farrah Fawcett as she looked in the poster hanging in Tony Manero’s room. But as a west coast production, Disco Lady is probably kept at arm’s length from SNF as that movie, as Hollywood a product as it is, is still fairly gritty and only feels but about three steps from being a rough, east coast sex picture from the era. Disco Lady is a movie that does contain some gritty elements but Chinn makes a decision to keep it light right up until the film’s final twenty minutes. It certainly causes the film to take a dark turn but this film might completely float away into the ether without an element of heavy gravity anchoring it to the ground. And it should be noted that, for its buzzkill dourness, the climactic end scene makes some amazing use of mirrors and the almost maddeningly slow slow-motion causes the film to descend into a grainy hell that reveals the inspiration for the climax of the New Year’s Eve scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997).

This film is certainly padded out in the laziest of ways but it also vibes on a carefree energy from its era; this is peak Golden Age so Disco Lady, as slight as it might be, is imprinted with the feeling of its time. And this is where independent and porn films have the advantage over most big-budgeted Hollywood films. This may be high concept adult fare (hey, let’s Saturday Night Fever but really fuck) but it’s kept so low to the ground that everything has a more immediate, tactile ring to it. With the most meager of material, Bob Chinn actually manages to magic carpet ride the audience into a time and place long gone.

As stated before, of the reasons Disco Lady might just be the New Year’s Eve movie of tomorrow is due to just how blasé it is about New Year’s Eve in general. That it’s New Year’s Eve is mentioned enough times to ensure this wasn’t an idea that was abandoned ten pages into the script, but it seems strangely non-celebratory until the very, very end of the film. This is due in no small part to just what a down and dirty production this was. The set for the Disco Lady club was built in the back room of a bowling alley that was actually a functioning nightclub. Chinn had limited time to get everything in the can before the weekend rolled around and the nightclub attracted its usual slate of clientele which, according to Chinn, could be pretty dangerous. So time was of the essence and there just wasn’t enough of it to fully plan this project out. The time crunch also accounts for the lack of variety once the movie moves into the club as two of the film’s four central hardcore scenes are shot in the same boring storeroom and on the same ugly, floral-print mattress that looks like it was kidnapped from a Sears warehouse. If there was even thirty minutes that lapsed between those two setups, I’ll eat my entire ass live on the internet.

Additionally, $5,000 just isn’t a lot of money to spend on a feature. It goes without saying that Chinn had to slash his usual $5K salary to direct the film but the budget was so tight that he had to go with a shot ratio that was only slightly more than a 1:1 on average and, by the end of the shoot, he found that he really didn’t have enough footage for a true feature which is why the final moments of the film, effective as they are, move like frozen molasses creeping across level driveway.

Some of the hardcore moments could have been rethought, most all of them having to do with Ric Lutze as a choice. Coming off like a downmarket Jamie Gillis with a ghastly haircut in the opening hardcore scene in the film, he is obviously someone who needs his mouth sewed shut during sex. Dirty talk is one thing. Giving a multi-point verbal presentation during every second of coitus is quite another. Additionally, in a later scene, Lutze’s Greek medallion, itself the size of a Lincoln Continental, calls attention to itself by continuously falling into the vagina of Tiffany Ladd which is, depending on how you slice it, either distracting or hilarious.

On the plus side, the music is all very good and it compliments the action well during the sex scenes and in the disco (for my money, porn music gets a bad rap anyway). Additionally, the club manages to have a grainy and slightly sleazy atmosphere which feels more or less authentic when one thinks of the neighborhood dance bars they’ve frequented. And it’s fun to see Rene Bond popping up for a quick second, even if it is in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, non-sex role.

Disco Lady ends on a semi-downbeat note as the camera dollies across the empty tables in the club, the night and previous year having ended on a note of confusing and shocking violence. A new day will be dawning and, with it, the new year. Given its tossed off production, there’s no way Chinn and company meant to say anything with the shot other than to give the credits something to run over. But there does still exist a morsel of truth in the shot as it kind of cracks the illusion of fresh, new beginnings as there’s only mere minutes separating you from who you were yesterday. Clean-up is always a bitch and much tougher than it looks.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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