Maestro Movie Review

For his documentary Maestro, director Josell Ramos has his hands on a tremendously rich subject: The explosion of dance-music culture in the late '70s, which inspired a whole generation of musicians playing techno, house, and other subgenres. Focusing on the New York scene -- particularly underground clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft -- Ramos catches up with some of the key musicians from the era and interviews folks reminiscing about the good old days. There's also a healthy dose of archival footage; halfway through the film we get a glimpse of the late artist Keith Haring bouncing on the dance floor of the Paradise Garage, where his iconic, totemic murals line the walls.

This particular moment in music history wasn't important just for obsessive collectors of 12-inch dance mixes. The clubs described in Maestro were gathering places for post-Stonewall gays -- particularly blacks and Hispanics -- through the late '70s and early '80s, and when they were later decimated by AIDS, they became important gathering places for the latter-day gay rights movement. That makes for a great story on the face of it, but Maestro is a disconnected, insiderish, sloppy, and strangely uninformative film. Part of the problem is that the DJ who's discussed most often, Larry Levan, isn't around to speak for himself -- he died in 1992 from AIDS, following years of drug addiction. Interviewees in Maestro speak glowingly about Levan, but Ramos spends little time establishing exactly what made him such an important figure; the three pages devoted to Levan in Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds's history of electronic dance music, are much more informative than any of the platitudes and hosannas spouted in the film.

Ramos himself suffers from an instinct to praise instead of explain -- it's not exactly useful, for example, to caption an interview with one DJ by saying he "created some of the most creative songs in dance music history." And though Maestro is in part a celebration of dance music, Ramos spends little time discussing exactly what kind of music was played at the clubs at the time, and how it evolved; dance music is playing constantly on the sound track, but there's no obvious connection between what's playing and what's an interviewee is saying. Maestro is a bittersweet mash note to a culture that Ramos clearly loves, but he's the most exasperating sort of scenester -- the guy who keeps telling you how great something is but lacks the skills and inclination to tell you exactly why.

The extras on the second DVD fill out the story somewhat, featuring extended interviews with Tee Scott, Ron Hardy, and Frankie Knuckles, a making-of doc, a featurette on club sound systems, and more.

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer :

Starring : , , , , John "Jellybean" Benitez


Comments

Maestro Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, 2003

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