WORDS BY NICK GORDON BROWN
Over the past year, we have shone a light on dozens of documentaries, from Netflix and Amazon blockbusters via archival delights to grainy YouTube gold. As we all edge nervously but excitedly back towards the dancefloors, let us take one more pit stop on this cultural roadmap out of lockdown.
Paris is Burning
What it’s about: 1980s ballroom & voguing culture in New York, as much a social phenomenon as a cultural one.
Why to watch it: Until rookie documentary maker Jennie Livingstone trained her lens and mic on the Houses of LeBeija, Xtravaganza et al, the ballroom scene was a well-kept secret, primarily amongst the disenfranchised black and Latino queer community who created it. The film itself is not without controversy: should it have been made by someone from outside this self-governing world? Was it cultural appropriation? Was the tone unduly sombre? Yet it undoubtedly remains a crucial (and fascinating) period piece. Ballroom is now higher profile, and regularly raided by the mainstream for inspiration, but as author and academic Madison Moore says, “once the media stops paying attention, ballroom culture will still be popping.”
Read an in depth Glitterbox appreciation of ballroom here:
How to watch it: BBC iPlayer for 3 more weeks!
Blitzed: the 80s Blitz Kids story
What it’s about: The intimate, high fashion Tuesday club night in London that spawned the New Romantic movement and a host of cultural movers and shakers.
Why to watch it: Blitz host Steve Strange is sadly no longer with us, but his Blitz partner Rusty Egan is very much centre stage here, while arguably the club’s most famous graduate, Boy George, also features prominently. It also puts Blitz very much into context as a crucial filter that helped the monochrome late 1970s morph into the vividly colourful early 1980s. With its glam meet electronic soundtrack, Blitz very much helped set the musical tone for several years to come, while the extreme efforts its clientele made to look fabulous on a Tuesday night are very much the stuff of clubland legend.
How to watch it: Sky Arts
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
What it’s about: The rollercoaster career of the brothers who created one of the best-selling acts of all time.
Why to watch it: Clubland has often had a somewhat confused relationship with the Bee Gees. On the one hand, they are arguably the height of cultural appropriation, disco tourists, chancers who only got the Saturday Night Fever gig through their manager. On the other – aren’t ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and ‘Night Fever’ classic dance tracks? And they had already made an album with legendary producer Arif Mardin, who discovered Barry Gibb’s falsetto and produced the sumptuous ‘Jive Talkin’’. And as this film shows, they suffered from the disco sucks backlash as much as any other act. It also rightly celebrates their skill as both singers and songwriters, and the resilience which, allied to their natural talent, saw them overcome many a bump in the road.
How to watch it: Amazon / YouTube
What it’s about: The R’n’B wonderkid who fought abuse, desertion and discrimination and ended up a rock superstar.
Why to watch it: Tina Turner has led a remarkable life, both its highs and lows being at the extreme end of the scale. Little wonder, then, that the Oscar-winning directors of this ‘swansong’ documentary have elected to focus on that aspect of the story. However, for those who love Tina the singer and performer, the two hour running time allows for plenty of incendiary concert footage. Tina’s life has already been the subject of a best-selling autobiography, a movie and a stage show, but the documentary ties it all together in comprehensive fashion. If this really is Tina bowing out, it’s a fitting tribute to an inspirational woman who continually overcame the odds.
How to watch it: HBO / Sky
Is this the end of clubbing?
What it’s about: DJ & broadcaster Jamz Supernova looks at the impact of the pandemic on clubland.
Why to watch it: Watched now, this short, clocking in at little over 20 minutes, engenders a sense of déjà vu. It was first shown in August last year when, inbetween covid waves, we took some tentative steps back towards nightlife – sound familiar? It jumps between debating the much missed “escapism at its finest” that is clubbing, and how the scene may change moving forward post-pandemic. Will it go back underground if restrictions continue to place limits on what can be done legally? Will a new wave of DJs break through? Will venues survive, and if they do how will they adapt? The disinterest in clubland shown by the powers that be is a recurring theme – but so is the passion and never-ending resolve and imagination of our creative sector.
How to watch it: BBC iPlayer
Music's Dirty Secrets: Women Fight Back
What it’s about: Journalist Tamanna Rahman investigates “a story the music industry might not want you to hear…it’s shocking, it’s traumatic, and it’s about the abuse of women.”
Why to watch it: “The person that was abusing me owned the company that I worked for.” This is one of many chilling moments in this hard-hitting but necessary and overdue investigation of the culture of misogyny and abuse that has long been rife in the music industry. It is a culture which clubland, for all its laudable core values, is not immune from, as seen most publicly in the case of Erick Morillo. The recurring theme is how the abusers are those in a position which enables them to influence the trajectory of women’s careers. We are told a survey reveals 85% of women working in the industry who have suffered abuse have not reported it, but here a number do step forward and tell their stories, the fight back referred to in the title. A must watch.
How to watch it: BBC iPlayer
Where Love Lives
What it’s about: “Dancefloors can unify people in ways governments and religions can’t and I stand by that sh*t 100%.” (Honey Dijon)
Why to watch it: No need to take the fifth here – suffice it to say that we have something of a vested interest in this one! However, everyone at Defected / Glitterbox and partners Clockwise Films is rightly proud of the end result, an independently made film, completed in a pandemic, whose production values match those of any documentary we have featured in these last 12 months; and with a unique story at its heart. In the words of director Ed Williams: “I have always been fascinated by the positive effects of music and the communities that grow around it…dance floors have been rich ground for community…everyone has their own journey to the dance floor and their own voyage of self-expression to navigate…we set out to show why those journeys are so incredibly important.”
How to watch it: YouTube
Check out our complete set of ‘must see’ documentary guides:
Our opening salvo during the first lockdown featured a veritable feast of essential house and disco docs, alongside the stories of many iconic artists (from Quincy Jones to Grace Jones); and a few gems from leftfield, a worldwide collection including one of our favourites, the Oscar-winning eulogy to backing vocalists, Twenty Feet From Stardom.
In part two we spread our cultural net wider to take in street art doyen Keith Haring, trans activist and icon Marsha P Johnson, hip hop deities Wu-Tang – and even Michael Jordan.
Covid’s effect on clubland, unsung heroes of jazz funk and pirate radio, and the inimitable Teddy Pendergrass all feature in this film-making smorgasbord.
We go behind the curtain with artists, songwriters and dancers; celebrate the likes of Nina Simone and Fela Kuti; highlight career retrospectives and concert movies ranging from the Style Council to Aretha Franklin via the Chemical Brothers; and spotlight both Rock Against Racism and Oscar winning director Steve McQueen’s TV collection, Small Axe.