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DVD Review: Funkytown

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Until the separatist Parti Quebecois came to power in 1976, Montreal – not Toronto – was the economic and cultural capital of Canada. And during the disco era, Quebec’s largest city had a nightlife like no other. In Funkytown, an ambitious portrait of Montreal’s late-seventies rise and fall, a discotheque owner huffs that Studio 54 copied them, not the other way around.

For its first hour, Funkytown is absolutely intoxicating. The film follows about a dozen disco celebrities, former celebrities, and wannabe celebrities as their paths cross at the city’s hottest club, the Starlight disco. There’s Bastien (Patrick Huard), an actor-turned-DJ who hosts Parti Disco Dance on local TV. And Jonathan (Paul Doucet), a flamboyantly gay fashionista who takes a liking to one of the show’s young dancers, Tino (Justin Chatwin), who struggles with his sexuality.

And then there’s Gilles (Raymond Bouchard) a famed Quebecois record producer who lent money to his son to open the place (and never lets him forget it), a washed-up singer reduced to working as a waitress while trying to make a comeback with disco, and an aging fashion model who hooks up with Bastien to break into television before switching to Gilles to make it into music. And then there’s Bastien’s wife and daughter, and Tino’s mother and her restaurant, and…

Funkytown has enough characters and plot for three or four movies, but for much of its running time, director Daniel Roby effectively holds it all together. Working with a budget of just over $7 million, he made a splendid-looking film that brilliantly captures the look and feel of 1976, despite a few anachronisms. Some of the long tracking shots, like the one of Bastien entering the TV studio at the beginning of the film, bring Goodfellas to mind. And the music – a mix of disco classics (some cover versions) and some convincing originals – is all over the place (If nothing else, Funkytown got me to put “Daddy Cool” on my iPod).

The performances are uniformly good – especially Huard as Montreal’s king of disco, whose fall is fast and painful. He’s on top of the world in 1976, but by 1977 he feels trapped as the public face of a musical genre he despises. As his drug and alcohol problem gets worse, he loses everything. A bit part in a sitcom, which requires him to wear a humiliating hot dog costume, is not rock bottom for Bastien. Huard seems to age twenty years between the scenes set in 1976 and those set in 1978 (He also moves effortlessly between French and English, often several times in the same scene).

Meanwhile, as the PQ takes power and threatens a referendum on separation from Canada (and forces the nightclub to become Le Starlight), other characters start planning their exit to Toronto and New York City. It’s kind of understandable why Quebec’s French-speaking majority turned to the nationalists – early on, the (francophone) owner of the Starlight makes it clear that the club plays only English music – but cosmopolitan, bilingual Montreal paid a heavy price.

If the entire film were as good as its first half, Funkytown would merit comparison with Boogie Nights. The third act, unfortunately, is more like 54. Some of the plot developments – a Milli Vanilli-style scam involving a new singing star, a foot chase through Montreal, a gay-bashing gone wrong, and a murder – belong in a soap opera, not what had been a believable portrait of a fascinating place and time. The movie’s spell is broken by the time we reach 1980.

That’s too bad, because some of these plot threads – especially the murder – could have been easily cut from the film. Funkytown is worth watching for its portrayal of late-seventies Montreal, but ultimately it’s a flawed film that could have been something truly special.

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