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Toronto: 'American Swing' and 'Every Little Step'

September 8, 2008 | 10:30 am

Two documentaries played on Saturday, both touching on aspects of New York City in the 1970s, as well as the ways the city has changed over the years.

"American Swing" looks at Plato's Retreat, the notorious straight sex-club that brought "swinging" into the mainstream, at least as a topic of discussion if not necessarily as a practice. The film focuses on the club's founder, Larry Levenson, but suffers from a shoddy structure that never quite balances the man, the club and the culture. The recollections of the club figures such as Mario Van Pebbles and Buck Henry are a highlight, adding an outside perspective sorely lacking elsewhere in the film. Henry describes the ever-present buffet of dubious food as "tempting but dangerous."

The film's main asset is its wealth of archival material of the club in full, uh, swing. More naughty than dirty (though some of the imagery is certainly explicit), the old footage seems playful and innocent even when people are performing acts that cannot be described in a general-interest publication. Fans of '70s clothes and hairstyles will certainly get a kick out of what's in the movie, as will anyone who appreciates the vast variety of accents that percolate among New Yorkers.

"Every Little Step" had its premiere Saturday night at the 1200-seat Winter Garden, a beautiful, historic
theater that really must be seen to be believed. Though I wasn't present, word from the screening is that the film received a standing ovation. I saw "Every Little Step" in Los Angeles before heading to Toronto and found it to be smartly constructed and extremely engaging and entertaining.

The film intertwines the origins of the musical "A Chorus Line" with some behind-the-scenes glimpses of the recent Broadway revival. Following a handful of auditioning actors and actresses, mirroring the show itself, the contemporary portions of the film are put together in a manner reminiscent of "Spellbound" -- a film that has become hugely influential on documentary structure -- bouncing from person to person. The archival sections sketch in the genesis of the show, how choreographer Michael Bennnet turned to the people he knew for inspiration, recording his friends as they talked about their lives in the theater and then turning those tapes into the seeds of the show.

-- Mark Olsen

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