In the final minutes of Whit Stillmans 1998 cult classic The Last Days of Disco, a group of twentysomethings are standing at the entrance to the Chambers Street subway station when they learn that their favorite Studio 54-esque haunt has closed, and that the disco era may in fact be dying around them. Then Josh—the handsome, manic-depressive D.A. played by Matt Keeslar—delivers a rousing defense of disco.
“Disco will never be over,” he says. “Something like this—that was this big, and this important, and this great—will never die . . . Those who didnt understand will never understand . . . Disco was too great, and too much fun to be gone forever. It has got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.”
“Its the old story of nostalgia for the present,” Stillman said on a recent phone interview from Paris, where he now lives, to revisit The Last Days of Disco and its cultural significance 20 years after the films release.
The last in his “doomed-bourgeois-in-love” series, which also includes Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), Disco follows the vagaries of a group of college friends as they navigate the path from preppy to yuppie—juggling publishing jobs, love lives, and a punishing club-going schedule. When The Last Days of Disco was released 20 years ago, in 1998, the dust had settled on polyester jumpsuits and platform heels. Even if you have never shivered while waiting for a bouncer to recognize you as the real deal outside of Danceteria, you at least understood the experience thanks to films like Disco, Boogie Nights, and antecedents like Saturday Night Fever.
Looking around today, it appears Stillman was prophetic in his conviction that disco could never die. On runways from New York to Milan, shoulder pads and leopard print are back; Tom Fords most recent New York show featured models in sequins and power suits walking down the runway to music by Chic and the Pointer Sisters. A recent issue of T Magazine was entirely devoted to early-80s New York, while millennials, born well after the disco era, post instagram photos with teased hair and leg-warmers for disco-themed parties singing along to Earth, Wind & Fires biggest hits.
For Stillman, who curated the films signature soundtrack, music was the key to tapping into the films proto-nostalgia. “The music is a sort of tunnel,” he said. It features some of the eras biggest hits—songs like “Le Freak,” “Doctors Orders,” “Heart of Glass,” and “Turn the Beat Around”—making for a buoyant, sometimes incongruous sonic backdrop to the characters social commentary. Initially, Stillman said, the soundtrack was received better than the film itself, even though it was missing a tune he had hoped to include: “We couldnt clear Diana Rosss Im Coming Out. I think Im Coming Out was less a hit back then, but its a really great song.”
Music aside, Stillman contends that the disco era marked the beginning of the club culture that persisted into the 90s and beyond. Disco star Chloë Sevigny had already been making a name for herself in the film industry when she appeared as Alice, a reformed Connecticut preppy who works in publishing with her frenemy, Charlotte. “Im a good girl from Connecticut. I can relate to that aspect,” Sevigny said in a separate interview. “My experience was much edgier, but still relatable . . . just struggling in the city, living with roommates—theres so much to relate to. I wasnt necessarily that girl, [but] there were some parallels.”
Once called “the It Girl with a street-smart style and a down-low attitude” by Jay McInerney in The New Yorker, Sevigny has long been an arbiter of The Scene in its many iterations. Though she missed the era herself, Sevigny is also skeptical about a possible disco renaissance: “I think there are too many rules and regulations. I dont think one could have that abandon that was more acceptable during that period. I personally dont even like disco music; I have a real aversion to it. But theres always going to be dance music. People are always going to have the desire to dance.”
For Sevigny, The Last Days of Disco tells a lesser-known story of Studio 54 culture, one that stands alone from tales of the institutions celebrity-infused, late-70s heyday. “I think it was supposed to capture the tail end of 54. I dont think it was supposed to be that high glamour,” she said. “I had my own kind of moment in the big clubs, going to Club USA and Tunnel and Limelight, and the club-kid thing was very specific—like Michael Alig and that whole scene. So thats what I thought of as the club kids. There was, of course, the bridge-and-tunnel element, which I think we [play] in the movie: the thrill-seekers. Theyre getting their own thing out of it, not that one is more important than the other. Theyre all part of the hierarchy of what went down in the club.”
Stillman—who, unlike Sevigny, does remember waiting in line to get into Studio 54—was a member of the preppy contingent that enjoyed its own place in the clubs social fabric. “In a place like the New York clubs—like 54, etc.—there were preppies, too,” says Stillman. “And there was sort of this thing that if you had some reason to dress up in black tie, then you should try to go to Studio 54 later, because you might get in. They liked having some people dressed up, and some people semi-naked—a mix of different characters.”
Mixing characters, as it happens, turned out to be a major challenge for Stillman and the films production team. “Casting was cut short, and we kept moving the actors around in different roles. I think one of the hits against the film was that all of the five lead male actors all seem sort of the same and interchangeable,” he said.
Were it not for the timing, Winona Ryder would have ended up playing Alice instead of Sevigny. “[Castle Rock Entertainment president] Martin Shafer put in a call to Winonas agent on Monday. On Wednesday, I had Chloë read for the part, and so I called up Martin Shafer and I said Martin, I met someone really wonderful and shes actually in your film Palmetto . . . but we offered the part to Winona. And he said, Well, actually, her agent never called back. So we could offer the part to Chloë.”
Perhaps there still could have been a role for Ryder in the film. “Maybe Winona would have been better for the Kate part,” said Stillman, referring to the duplicitous character played by Kate Beckinsale, a part that helped launch her career. Then again, adds Stillman, “Kates casting is one of the only times in my life I really wrote a part for an actor.”
The Last Days of Disco closes out Stillmans loosely connected and much-lauded trilogy chronicling the insecurities and ennui of the American “U.H.B.”—Stillmans term for the urban haute bourgeoisie. Asked where his preoccupation for this rarefied (and dwindling) stratum of society originated, Stillman pointed to a critical observation he made upon graduating from Harvard. “I guess it comes from a feeling I had when I got out of university, in June 1973. It seemed like society was totally atomized,” he said. “There were no connections; there was no social fabric. So when you read the world of Tolstoy and War and Peace, social gatherings were all connections between people. Or Jane Austen, where there are always connections. Or Fitzgerald . . . I guess its trying to imagine and reconstruct the links between people, and ask, Is there really a social fabric at any time?”
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Pre-eminent cultural petri dish
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Style icon (female)
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