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Film

Maestro

By Tom Pryor
Published July 14, 2006

Maestro, directed by Cuban-born/New York-raised director Josell Ramos, takes a look at the formative days of dance music culture in New York City, when it was still underground, and still largely a black, Latino and gay phenomenon.

Club music, dance music, disco… Whatever you want to call it, there’s no doubt that it’s one of the least well-documented forms of popular music today. While celebrity DJs command big bucks from South Beach to Ibiza, and 12-inch vinyl remixes remain impervious to the threat of mp3s, there’s been precious little critical engagement in one of pop music’s most enduring genres. But this music, too often dismissed as “soulless” or “disposable,” has a history and a mythology all its own, and a recent documentary reveals the messy, exuberant human story behind the origins of dance music.

Maestro, directed by Cuban-born/New York-raised director Josell Ramos, takes a look at the formative days of dance music culture in New York City, when it was still underground, and still largely a black, Latino and gay phenomenon. The film traces the trajectory of the scene through the late-’60s, ’70s and ’80s by focusing on seminal clubs (the Loft, Paradise Garage, the Warehouse, etc.) and the DJs that made them great (Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, etc.).

The story that unfolds is told largely by the people who were there, thanks to numerous in-depth interviews with everyone from scenesters, like fashion designer Patricia Fields, to celebrity DJs like Danny Tenaglia and Tony Humphries, to the humble bartenders, bouncers and clubgoers who gave the scene its unique flavor.

“We wanted to talk to normal, everyday people because that’s who was there, and that’s who our audience is,” explains Ramos. “The scene wasn’t about the rich or the famous or the privileged. It wasn’t about Studio 54. It was about all kinds of regular people who came together to party and just be themselves.”

The film works episodically through the evolution of both the music and the scene itself, focusing first on the late DJ Larry Levan and his iconic, invitation-only dance club Paradise Garage. Famously located in an actual former garage, Levan’s multistory club was designed for maximum musical experience, truly creating a dancers’ paradise and one of the hottest spaces in late ’70s/ early ’80s New York (there’s some very ’80s footage of graffiti artist Keith Haring dancing under his own art there). Levan’s genius and vision as a DJ and his attention to the details of sound eventually lent their name to an entire subgenre of dance music, still known today as “garage.”

From there the narrative backtracks a bit to David Mancuso’s equally influential Loft, a more low-key house party that ran in two locations from the early ’70s into the ’80s. Mancuso’s Loft was simply an extension of his house, and his parties were much more intimate and social than the hedonistic free-for-alls at the Garage. The story Mancuso tells (and it’s a shame that Levan is no longer around to tell his story) is that of a DJ who simply wanted to open his home up and share the music he loved. The response was intense, loyal and almost cultish, and attracted the most serious dancers in New York City City>’s five boroughs.

One of the main points that Mancuso makes is about community: he stresses that he wasn’t out to make a fast buck or exploit clubgoers, but to provide a space where a community—gay, straight, black, white and Latino—could come together and simply enjoy music. A point that so many of Maestro’s interviewees make over and over—from Mancuso opening his home, to the club kid who was thrown out of his house at 16 for being gay—is that this scene was as much about refuge and community as it was about music.

“These clubs were a lifeline for some people,” explains Mancuso. “One of the guys who worked at Paradise Garage said that it felt like a privilege just to mop the floors there. It was a place where he felt like he belonged, where certain things that the rest of the world considered ‘deviant’ were accepted, and where he could just live his life.”

Of course, it’s impossible t