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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Music, Maestro. Please
by Donald Levit

Like supernovae, particular phenomena swell and engulf the context in which they were originally embedded centerpieces. Thus Super Bowl halftimes devour the planetary eight minutes' action -- some hundred plays, maybe five seconds per -- that revolve in their daylong systems. Fidel occupies more print than revolutionary Cuba, Capone absorbs all of Prohibition. So, too, with cognoscenti, does the ethos that girds house music -- the "Underground Dance Music Culture"-- prove more intense, and interesting for a wider public, than the music itself. Begun four years ago on spec for cable TV, writer-director-producer Josell Ramos's Maestro chronicles the birth, as its tagline proclaims, of "the movement that became the dance music of today," during the exciting decade-and-a-half beginning in New York's late 1960s, interspersed with reminiscences of seminal survivors and takes of the current, less "underground" scene.

Mostly an urban thing and, as the documentary notes, currently bigger in Europe and Asia than here at home, the music -- about 120 beats a minute, midway between slower rap and faster commercial dance music -- and culture have a passionate core of adherents. At the after-party, Italians spoke of flying in for New York dance weekends, and famous DJs, promoters and clubbers excitedly rubbed shoulders in friendly agape. Though outside private drug abuse and AIDS decimated names and devotees in the '80s, the later culture frowns on substance abuse, getting high instead on endless bottles of water and the ecstasy of dancing, sometimes for hours straight during up to twelve hours of nonstop mixes. Distinct from rap and gangsta clubs, where weapons pat-downs are common, there is no violence, only joy and fellowship.

Though it, in effect, morphed into other popular forms like disco and techno, and though it appeared on the verge of wide acceptance at several moments (but faltered), and though record companies still pay $25,000 and up to have their commercial stuff remixed a single time and played, the music does not come alive in Maestro. But then, the insistent beat itself is only one aspect of this club/house party scene, and, despite tricks at its disposal, for once film is inadequate to capture the fervor that emanates from the center in venues of "atmosphere without detail." To Freddie Taylor, first female DJ invited to play at the Loft, the mix is not priority, either, but the feeling is, "telling a [music-experience] story through sequence." To others, it is not the song but the "sonics," how the ensemble sounds.

The film errs, too, in being excessively grainy in its cut club-dance vignettes. This is due to age and shooting conditions in some cases. In others, however, this is not so, and in all live footage here, modern as well as older, images are more eye-annoying than even in your normal post-Pennebaker concert-documentary style and frequently so soft-focused (invariably angled from above or below) as to appear blue-white-highlighted slo-mo masses of abstract shapes.

Apart from two or three exceptions that are for no reason fuzzed, the many interview inserts are less conspicuously stylized and more viewer-friendly, set as they are naturally, in streets, apartments or studios, with props like a black cat and, except for one lapse, no interviewer's questioning voice. Enthusiastic Hispanics in their thirties recount how the club scene kept them from the pitfalls of mean Barrio streets; producers and DJs explain techniques of the trade; and all speak of the vibrancy of the milieu and of the legendary, often now defunct, clubs and men who pioneered them.

Time and again, almost everyone reverts to two topics. Revered DJ boy genius Larry "Pope of Paradise" Levan (born Lawrence Philpot), who threads throughout as leitmotiv, drifted after Michael Brody closed the Paradise Garage in 1987, and died in poverty at thirty-eight. Second, of more general interest, is the leveling effect of the dance phenomenon, for this began in earnest after Stonewall, when gays could at last come out and publicly express themselves in dance. In these inexpensive places, gays and straights, blacks, Latinos and whites, old and young, men and women, well-off and not-so-flush, could meet on equal grounds and in the process learn tolerance. "You had to learn to relate to people not before a part of your life," says singer Billie.

It is this strain of "being yourself, being fabulous," that should strike a wider audience. The innumerable names dropped, the faces seen, are recognizable largely to habitués but not beyond. For those unfamiliar, here is a peep into a little-known, though no longer so underground, world. If this world is truly more public and popular on other continents, then perhaps Maestro should be more embraceable there.

(Released by Artrution Productions and Door A; not rated by MPAA.)

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