Color, 1998, 113m.
Directed by Whit Stillman
Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals, Matt Ross, Tara Subkoff
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD5.1
The third and last film in writer/director Whit Stillman's standout trilogy of '90s coming-of-age indie hits (following Metropolitan and the annoyingly unavailable Barcelona), The Last Days of Disco is easily the most stylish and unusual of the trio as it leaps back to the early '80s as the disco craze was beginning to wane. Publishing house coworkers Alice (Sevigny) and the far more brash Charlotte (Beckinsale) get together at night to dance and hopefully meet the right guy at a hip disco (modeled after Studio 54 but never referred to as such), while a diverse group of men surrounds them: club manager Des (Eigeman), who dumps girls by pretending to be gay; his friend Jimmy (Astin), who's banned from the club but sneaks in anyway; Tom (Leonard), an assistant D.A.; and Josh (Keeslar), an assistant D.A. with designs on Alice and a fascination with pop culture and the politics of the disco movement.
In typical Stillman fashion, the real fun here lies in the whip-smart dialogue which ranges from a dissection of the term "yuppie" to an investigation to the subtext of Lady and the Tramp. The cast is easily the most prestigious Stillman ever assembled (including a young and ridiculously beautiful Beckinsale in her first American role), and at the time it came out, this was a breath of fresh air for anyone who wanted to see rising independent movie queen Sevigny get to do something a little more life affirming after her fate in the notorious Kids and other grungy films like Gummo. She's terrific here as the vulnerable audience surrogate, making this the only one of the original Stillman trilogy essentially told from a feminine perspective. (However, it should be noted she does get slapped with a little bit of venereal punishment at one point; maybe Stillman was a closet Larry Clark fan.) Most amusingly, this also pairs her up on screen with actor Matt Ross, who would later reunite with her on American Psycho and go on to play her ultra-creepy brother Alby on the HBO series Big Love.
As you might expect from the title, one of the biggest stars here is actually the soundtrack which kicks off with one of the best disco songs ever recorded, Carol Douglas' "Doctor's Orders," complete with a terrific, lengthy instrumental bridge added just for the film. As Stillman explains on the commentary, the use of songs here is more impressionistic than specific to any one year but seems focused roughly around 1979. You'll hear everything from Blondie's "The Tide Is High" to Chic's "Good Times" to Amii Stewart's "Knock on Wood." That last song also played a prominent role in another 1998 disco-themed film, 54, whose existence caused production of this film to accelerate to beat it into theaters. They shouldn't have worried since Miramax managed to demolish 54 so completely through tampering and reshoots that the supposedly once-worthwhile film was left an incoherent mess in its final form. Instead, The Last Days of Disco remains one of the best snapshots of the period (yes, shockingly, it's better than Thank God It's Friday!), never resorting to cheap pop culture gags or lazy needle-dropping songs. Every element is well chosen and effective, right down to the bittersweet but uplifting end credits that'll have you humming hours later.
Unlike Metropolitan, this didn't make its DVD debut from Criterion. A very underwhelming DVD of the Focus Features release was issued by Polygram very early in the format's history from Polygram, and the flat letterboxed transfer barely conveyed the rich visuals of the nightclub scenes or the crisp detail of the daylight ones. That disc went out of circulation when the company's assets went over to Universal, who kept the film out of circulation for nearly a decade as demand drove prices through the roof. Fortunately Criterion eventually released a satisfying DVD in 2009, complete with extras similar to the ones found on their earlier Metropolitan release. The 2012 Blu-Ray revisits the same territory by carrying over the extras and utilizing an HD master that improves on its standard def predecessor, though not as dramatically as you might expect. The day scenes look nice overall, though the darker ones inexplicably look much less like film than Metropolitan; it has more of a buffed veneer you might recognize from some Universal catalog titles (though not the disastrous oversharpened ones like Scent of a Woman or Tremors), which makes one wonder where this master actually originated. In any case it's definitely the best this film has looked on home video, though its accuracy to the celluloid source seems questionable. On the other hand, there's no doubt about the Stillman-sanctioned lossless 5.1 mix, which assaults your speakers with a multi-channel barrage of pop music classics. Obviously the club scenes get most of the attention here, and it really sounds terrific, a tasteful revisit to the more limited Dolby mix first heard in theaters. Optional English subtitles are also included. As for extras, you get another entertaining Stillman/Eigeman commentary track, this time joined by an energetic Sevigny as they talk about uncontrollable giggle fits, appropriate music choices, getting rising star Robert Sean Leonard in the film, and the veracity of some of the local touches like the girls' unorthodox apartment layout. They also provide optional commentaries for a quartet of deleted scenes (apparently from a workprint), plus Stillman reading a portion of his book, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which inspired the film. Other video supplements include the theatrical trailer, a five-minute pitch reel, and a stills gallery, plus a liner notes booklet by novelist David Shickler. Like all Stillman films it has a good beat, and this time you really can dance to it.