PBS Docuseries Will Present a ‘Revisionist’ History of Disco Music & Culture
At the Television Critics Association’s (TCA) Winter Press Tour, PBS president and CEO Paul Kerger announced that the network will be premiering a three-part docuseries called Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution this summer.
A production of BBC Studios, the series will air Tuesdays (June 18, June 25 and July 2, 2024) and is described as tackling “the surprising and often overlooked history of disco.”
Disco embodied the height of 1970s glamour: a dance-floor culture born in New York City that went on to take over the world. But its success also obscured its wider significance. Inextricably bound up with the major liberation movements of the 1970s, disco speaks to some of the biggest issues of today, including LGBTQ+ identity and female empowerment.
Singer-songwriter Sylvester (Sylvester James Jr.) circa 1978
“Charting disco from its inception and global domination to the violent attempts to end the genre, Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution reclaims its roots,” said Sylvia Bugg, chief programming executive and general manager, general audience programming at PBS, in a release. “Before commercialization, discothèques belonged to the marginalized and the dispossessed, who tapped into the beat-driven music and the disco scene in a battle for community, identity, and inclusivity.”
The series also underscores disco’s survival. Co-opted by the commercial mainstream, the genre dominated and flooded the market — the airwaves and record shops — leading to a subsequent hate-fueled backlash. As a result, the music and its ethos went back underground, where it evolved into an electronic dance sound that laid the foundations for contemporary dance culture.
Sound of a Revolution will feature some of disco’s originators, musicians, promoters and innovators, as well as modern-day musical icons. Among those listed in the program’s release include The Village People’s Victor Willis; Labelle’s Nona Hendryx; The Trammps’ Earl Young; Thelma Houston; Anita Ward; Father of House Music, Marshall Jefferson; Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic and Jake Shears; Sylvester’s Jeanie Tracy; George McCrae; Jocelyn Brown; Dexter Wansel; Candi Staton; Honey Dijon; and more.
Released May 19, 1978, during the height of the disco era, Thank God It's Friday offers a great soundtrack featuring Casablanca Records and Motown artists, led by star Donna Summer, who performs the Oscar-winning 'Last Dance,' and the Commodores, who appear as themselves for a performance of 'Too Hot ta Trot.'
Here is a brief overview of the series’ episodes at this point:
Episode 1: “Rock the Boat”
Premieres: Tuesday, June 18
The opening episode of the series looks at the roots of disco — how it emerged from a basic desire for inclusion, visibility and freedom among persecuted Black, gay and minority ethnic communities of New York City. It tells the remarkable story of how a global phenomenon began in the loft apartments and basement bars of New York City, where a new generation of DJs and musicians like David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Francis Grasso and Earl Young (The Trammps) pioneered a distinct sound and a new way of spinning records.
Episode 2: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”
Premieres: Tuesday, June 25
Set against the backdrop of Black power and sexual liberation, the second episode takes viewers to the high watermark of disco in the mid ’70s. As disco conquers the mainstream, it turns Black women and gay men into superstars and icons. It is a world where the drag queen Sylvester was king, and Black women found a powerful new voice — one that fused Black Power with a call for sexual freedom.
It was the birth of the “disco diva,” from Gloria Gaynor and Candi Staton to Donna Summer and Thelma Houston. However, mainstream success by the Bee Gees’ soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever, the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and Studio 54 took disco further and further from its roots of inclusivity and freedom as straight, white men started to embrace and repackage the sound.
Episode 3: “Stayin’ Alive”
Premieres: Tuesday, July 2
The final episode documents the wellspring of resentment from white, straight, male-dominated, rock-loving middle Americans as they targeted disco for its hedonism, femininity and queerness. A vocal “Disco Sucks” movement began to gain momentum, culminating in the “Disco Demolition Derby” at Comiskey Park Stadium in Chicago, where organizers destroyed thousands of disco records in front of an audience of baseball fans.
One of the most notorious events in sports history went down at Chicago's Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979.
In addition, the hedonism and sexual liberation embodied by disco found itself stopped in its tracks by the AIDS crisis. Pushed out of the mainstream, the pioneers of disco retreated and regrouped. Cult disco DJ Frankie Knuckles left New York for Chicago, where he remixed disco breaks with R&B to produce a new genre of dance music — house. He and other disco pioneers kept disco alive as it evolved into world electronic dance music.