“Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution” / Publicity photo

New Documentary Looks at the Rise of Disco, Including LGBTQ Trailblazers and Recording Artists

It was the most popular music of the 1970s — and it came about almost unintentionally. The new docuseries, “Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution,” looks at the early days of the music form and how it changed the world.

The comprehensive series, told in three parts, is directed by Grace Chapman, Shianne Brown, and Louise Lockwood, with Georgian Candi Staton as one of the numerous interviewees.

Chapman wanted to bring as much detail as she could to the series while also showcasing many of its subjects.

“Disco people have got this image in their head of what disco is and for people who have looked at it a bit more in depth we knew this wasn’t the true story,” Chapman said. “It wasn’t just Studio 54. From an intellectual and artistic perspective, that is what captivated me about this subject. From a personal perspective, I grew up at a time when I remember disco.”

Her years growing up in Belfast featured plenty of violence and war; getting on the dance floor allowed people to forget their troubles.

For Brown, she wanted to unpack the socioeconomic and political landscape of the movement.

“I wanted to look at that intersection between the music and the politics, because there are so many avenues for the audience to learn about disco — where it came from, the legacy of it today and how we can honor and celebrate those voices,” Brown said.

Disco began in the basement bars and loft apartments in New York as a way for those who felt persecuted to gain visibility and freedom and inclusion. It became a worldwide sensation and made icons of many gay men and Black women before some in society began to resent and target it.

“In America, particularly on the East Coast, there was so much economic deprivation and so much oppression of minority communities that they were never going to succeed within the mainstream,” Chapman said. “If you were queer, Black, Latino, a woman, you were not getting a chance in a United States overseen by Nixon, still reeling from the Vietnam War. You went out and made your own life, where you could be accepted, that you loved and didn’t have to be shaped by the structures and the authorities. In New York, people were being driven out and priced out and ghettos were being created and people stepped into the ghettos. They said we are going to take this and make it beautiful — and they did.”

Two of the central figures of the time were (openly gay) DJ Nicky Siano and David Mancuso. Chapman calls Siano the godfather of disco.

“During Stonewall, he ran bars for people (who were) told not to be in public spaces,” Chapman said. “Prior to Nicky was David Mancuso and The Loft. This man opened his doors for people to dance. His place was one of inclusivity.

The co-director sees a parallel between pre-disco days and now.

“It might seem like a long time ago, but we’ve had our own mirror image lately with the economic collapse and people have gone out and created art in warehouses recently,” Chapman said. “It’s happening where I live in Hackney and in [London] and these places are filled with creatives going, ‘I’ve got no money, and we don’t have the opportunities that were there for previous generations, but we are not going to be ground down by it; we are going to make our own life.”

One of the subjects in Brown’s third episode mentions that dance floors do what countries and governments can’t — they unite people.

“When you are on that dance floor and listening to culture it doesn’t matter who you, where you come from,” Brown said.

Staton was one of the recording artists whose career took off during this time. The singer told producer and friend David Crawford about the story of her love life and the man who threatened her and her children.

“I was so frightened of him, and David was writing down what I said,” Staton said. He later told her he was going to write her a song that lasts forever.

Staton recorded “Young Hearts Run Free” in 1976, and it is now regarded as one of the greatest dance songs of all time.

She credited Gloria Gaynor with breaking the glass ceiling during that time.

“Before Gloria came out with ‘I Will Survive,’ women weren’t singing those type of songs, up-tempo ones,” she said. “Women were singing sad songs. [After that song’s success], women could be strong and have a life other than what they were singing about. We were free finally to do what we wanted to as artists.”

“Young Hearts Run Free” became almost a gay anthem, she said.

“Gay men would love to dance to it; they felt freedom,” Staton said. “Honestly, the gay community is some of my biggest fans. When I go somewhere half the place is filled up with gay men. I love them and they love me back.”

“Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution” is airing on PBS, PBS.org, the PBS app and PBS Passport.