“It was an incredible piece of unscripted theater,” recalls a talking head in the documentary Wrecked for Life: The Trip & Magic of Trocadero Transfer, one of the films included in UCLA's “Reflections in a Mirrored Ball” program. Although he's speaking about the scene at San Francisco's legendary 1970s disco Trocadero Transfer, his words apply to the early days of disco, period — when it was still a vibrant outsider culture whose denizens were largely some combination of black, Latino and queer. A survey of films made during and about disco's heady heyday, with mixed results “Reflections” tracks disco's move from subculture to mainstream.
Wrecked is actually the weakest film in the lineup. A static collection of interviews shot in people's homes, without photos or film footage from the club's glory days to illustrate or illuminate the tales, the documentary drifts into tedium despite the enthusiasm of its subjects. Likewise, cult musicals Xanadu and Thank God It's Friday, clumsy attempts by Hollywood to capitalize on the disco craze, are surprisingly plodding save for the unintentional giggles they inspire. (Although, with '70s L.A. as their backdrops, both films do serve as wonderful visual time capsules of their eras.)
Both astoundingly bad and utterly captivating, Can't Stop the Music, directed by the late actress-comedian Nancy Walker and produced and co-written by the late, flamboyant producer Allan Carr, was intended to transport the Village People from pop chart to film stardom, but by its release disco had crested and the group was churning out charmless, rock-inflected retreads of old hits. Critically lambasted upon release, the film is hardly a lost masterpiece: Except for an over-the-top homoerotic sequence for “YMCA,” the musical numbers really are clunkers. But the script, filled with risqué puns and nonstop innuendo, also has a real sweetness to it. And despite the hetero romance shoehorned into the film's center, it's a rousingly pro-gay flick, especially Valerie Perrine's fierce reading of Bruce Jenner's character for his small-mindedness. (It's worth the price of admission to see Jenner's uptight, ultrastraight lawyer remade into a midriff-baring, tight-jeans-shorts-wearing proto-metrosexual.)
The treat of this program, though, is the chance it provides to watch, on the big screen, Saturday Night Fever and Car Wash, two films that embody and transcend their eras in capturing what it is to be working-class, and/or queer, and/or of color, struggling to sustain oneself. Both films — well-written, directed and acted, as well as funny — wittily whip the assorted identity issues they tackle into sublime pop fare. The sympathetic but unsentimental portrait of the flaming black queen of Car Wash is still a rare depiction, especially the way the film pulls viewers into her corner as she shoots down a homophobe with the classic retort, “Honey, I am more man than you'll ever be, and more woman than you'll ever get!”
REFLECTIONS IN A MIRRORED BALL | July 15-31 | UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater | cinema.ucla.edu