The Last Days of Disco: Criterion Collection
August 19, 2009
With The Last Days of Disco (1998), Whit Stillman completed his loose-knit trilogy of films about doomed Preppies in love. Much like vintage Woody Allen, the characters in Stillman’s films exist in a hermetically-sealed world on the Upper East Side of New York City. His characters are affluent and well-educated but with messy relationships. Last Days of Disco sets all of this against the backdrop of the decline of the disco era and the end of blatant hedonism and decadence for the “Greed is Good” capitalism of the 1980s. It is a testament to Stillman’s skill as a filmmaker that he does this all with a fantastic sense of humor and a real affection for his characters, even the ones that aren’t all that likable.
Alice (Sevigny) and Charlotte (Beckinsale) are junior editors looking for their big break at a publishing house during the day and making the scene and being seen at a high-profile Studio 54-esque nightclub at night. Alice remains loyal to her publishing job, patiently biding her time until she can advance up the ladder while Charlotte is more interested in working in television. The film follows their various romantic entanglements and how they are intertwined with the fate of the nightclub they love to frequent.
Charlotte is superficial and condescending towards Alice, criticizing her dating habits under the auspices of giving her advice. She’s self-centered and Kate Beckinsale does a good job (almost too good) of portraying her shallow character. In contrast, Alice is much more reserved and nice, even if she is socially awkward, like the way she clumsily tries to seduce Tom (“Scrooge McDuck is sexy.”). Fresh from her breakout role in Kids (1995), Chloe Sevigny creates a layered character that we are meant to empathize with because she has more substance than Charlotte. Stillman regular Chris Eigeman turns up in a memorable supporting role as Des, the superficial manager of the nightclub, who is not above telling a woman that he’s gay in order to break-up with her. In other words, he’s a perfect match for Charlotte.
Part of the charm of The Last Days of Disco is the rarefied social strata that Stillman presents and populates with fascinating characters that have easily recognizable and relatable traits and experiences. The film is also a lament for the demise of disco, most notably in the form of Josh (Keeslar), and one gets the feeling that he is Stillman’s mouthpiece in regards to his feelings about disco. He confides in his friend Tom (Leonard) that he’s a “loyal adherent to the disco movement” despite frequenting very few nightclubs, but nonetheless feels very passionate about the music – shades of Tom from Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan (1990), who doesn’t read fiction but instead prefers good, literary criticism.
Josh also verbalizes his feelings about the fate of disco rather eloquently at the film’s conclusion. The speech is a bit long-winded but delivered convincingly by Matt Keeslar which ends the film on a somewhat melancholic note, tempered by the jubilant end credits sequence which features a subway car full of people dancing to “Love Train” by the O’Jays. In retrospect, we know that the end of disco ushered in New Wave and hair metal music which dominated popular music until the late ‘80s with the rise of alternative music. I was never a fan of disco music but the way Stillman uses it in The Last Days of Disco, and his obvious love for it, makes me appreciate it a bit more. I don’t know if I’d listen to this music outside of the film but within its confines, the music works incredibly well. Thanks to Stillman’s film, I have come to respect this much-maligned genre.
For quite some time there had been rumors that the folks at the Criterion Collection were planning a special edition of this film. Stillman had even talked it up in interviews. The previous DVD came and went rather quickly before going out-of-print, fetching steep prices on eBay, so for fans of this film it nice to have Last Days of Disco finally readily available.
There is an audio commentary by director Whit Stillman and actors Chloe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. Stillman wastes no time diving into the origins of his film and how Winona Ryder was almost cast as Alice but her agent was slow in responding and Sevigny got the role. The actress has a charming, self-deprecating wit and points out her awkward dancing style. Eigeman says that he almost didn’t do the film because the studio felt that he wasn’t famous enough. He was also worried that he’d be typecast; playing a character similar to the ones he did in Stillman’s two previous films. The director speaks eloquently about his interest in disco on this chatty, engaging track.
Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Stillman, Sevigny and Eigeman. There is a subplot with Jimmy (Astin) that fleshes out his feelings for Alice and Charlotte. There is also more footage of Des outside of the club. It develops his character more and is nice to see, particularly if you’re a fan of Eigeman. Stillman puts the footage in context and explains why it was cut.
Stillman reads from his 2000 book, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which is a novelization of the film from the point-of-view of Jimmy Steinway and also picks up after the events in the film.
A nice inclusion is a vintage featurette from the time of the film’s release. This promotional material features behind-the-scenes footage and soundbites from Stillman and his cast.
“Stills Gallery” features a collection of photographs from the film with captions written by Stillman that consist of personal recollections of making the film.
Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer.