"I always thought dance music was a lot of fun and whatever, but really it's a life-or-death thing for a lot of people." Josell Ramos is describing what he learned making his new documentary, Maestro, screening at the Orange Show this week. Depicting the genesis of what has come to be known as "DJ culture," the film spotlights everyone from its early-1970s pioneers to latter-day mixmasters like Danny Tenaglia and Mr. Fingers.
"I had been a vinyl junkie," says the Cuban-born, Bronx-raised Ramos, who's worked as a photojournalist and graphic designer. "I was working on another project, and just by chance I met a lot of the people who actually founded, like, the Loft, the Gallery, Sanctuary, all the legendary New York dance clubs."
Maestro depicts the creation of an organic countercultural movement. All such movements have their iconic leaders and martyrs, and the NYC dance movement had its Bob Marley, its John Lennon and its Sid Vicious all wrapped up in one bundle of creative energy. His name was Larry Levan. The film rarely goes more than five or six minutes without someone mentioning Levan (at one point a prominent DJ refers to him without irony as "the God I turn to"). We hear of Levan's development from a flamboyantly "out" gay black teenager into a pioneer of turntable technique and sound-system innovation that dance mavens take for granted today. Producer Bob Blank calls Levan "a master of crowd control," crediting him with not only discovering and playing the best and most surprising beats, but using the whole process to tell a story, keeping the dancers hooked out there on the floor.
Of course, the dance scene, especially at the start, was a predominantly gay thing. In the film, the rise of the Paradise Garage club is referred to as the "beginning of gay pride" -- the 1969 Stonewall riots had made it legal for men to dance together. And dance they did. The music was so exciting that one female clubber speculates that it was the beginning of the fag-hag phenomenon, stating that "if you weren't a fag-hag, a woman couldn't get into the Garage." Of course, anyone up on his epidemiology knows that this story can't end happily, and Ramos doesn't shy away from the tragic facts.
Legendary remixer Francois K gives bitter, nearly tearful testimony about a club night in the early '80s when an announcement was made warning about the spread of "this disease" through drug-taking and unprotected sex. "Looking around it was sad just how little the crowd cared. By the time people realized they were sick, it was too late."
Some of the most touching moments in Maestro come from original Sanctuary DJs Francis Grasso and Steve D'Aquisto, whose near-simultaneous stories overlap but never drown each other out, like conversational remixes. Both died before the film was released. Levan died in 1992.
"These days dance music is big business," says Ramos, "and kids just follow whatever the new trend is. But for these people, it was definitely a way of life." His film is garnering near-religious excitement from audiences wherever it shows, depicting a place and time when, as one scene veteran put it, "you could be yourself and you could be fabulous."