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Love Goes To Buildings On Fire

1977 New York gets the VH1 treatment and, oh my, wasn't it fun back then!

Oh yes, it was wicked cool: getting jacked at machete-point on the subway after a night of clubbing, and at bayonet-point outside of high school. See, NYC thugs had style in 1977, son! I mean, people broke store windows and stole shit during the '77 blackout—not like the boring 2003 one! And the garbage! Even the garbage festering on the sidewalks was funkier back then!

For those of us who were there, the tone of current nostalgia for mid-'70s NYC seems a bit disingenuous; those were some seriously fucked-up times. But the media and culture industries need to pimp history and flog anniversaries. So as Rolling Stone, the Whitney, and ABC Carpet all trip out on the Summer of Love, 1977 is also getting its flashback moment. And deservedly, since, grimy romanticism notwithstanding, the year was a hugely important one for pop culture in general, and New York City culture in particular.

The VH1 "rock doc" NY77 is a nicely textured if circumscribed portrait of the city's music scene that year, co-written by Jonathan Mahler, who wrote the masterful urban history Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City. That book, which also inspired ESPN's eight-part Yankees docudrama The Bronx Is Burning (which runs through August 28), chronicled the year in remarkable, and often grim, detail. Besides the racially charged sports drama of Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, there was the city's protracted fiscal meltdown, the hunt for a serial killer, a vicious and pivotal mayoral election, massive civil service layoffs, widespread arson, the aforementioned blackout and subsequent looting, plus rampant criminality of all flavors, indulged in for both fun and profit.

Simultaneously, a cultural cluster-bomb blew up the city's music scene—though strictly speaking, fuses had been burning and salvos bursting for a number of years already. Punk, which coalesced at CBGB in 1974, exploded bigger in 1977 than anyone might have guessed, not just via major-label LPs by club regulars (debuts by Television, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, and Blondie, plus two Ramones LPs) but also through British punk's potent mirror image, which came back across the ocean with so much sound and fury, it threatened to drown out the originators (and to an extent, did).

Then there was disco, whose sound wasn't a New York invention per se, but whose scene and culture certainly was. After brewing at places like the Loft and the Gallery, it also hit a peak in '77, between the opening of Studio 54 at 254 West 54th Street in April and the release of the NYC fairy tale Saturday Night Fever in December. At the same time, disco's roughneck little brother hip-hop was evolving in the Bronx in parks, basements, clubs, and Police Athletic League rec rooms, the cultural spotlight still a couple of years away.

Surprisingly, it's hip-hop history that gets the most compelling treatment in NY77, despite its virtually non-existent media profile at the time. Originators like DJ Hollywood and Grandmaster Caz come with vivid old-school stories, and there's some remarkable archival footage from the Bronx club Disco Fever, early hip-hop's ground zero. But disco and punk get their due: There are striking black-and-white crowd scenes from CBGB (apparently rescued from Super-8 reels that had been gathering dust under someone's bed in the East Village), glimpses of dancers at the Paradise Garage, and of asshole prince Steve Rubell demeaning patrons who hoped to pass his velvet ropes into Studio 54.

What's predictable, yet still disappointing, about NY77 is how it ignores vital parts of the city's musical culture. New York salsa was a little past its peak but still an awesome force in 1977, its clave pulse and congas informing the rhythm science of hip-hop, disco and, later, post-punk. "Never before, including the period when the Cha-Cha-Cha was in vogue and Xavier Cugat had his own TV show, has Latin music been so popular," wrote Alfredo Lopez in a Voice feature that November. And indeed, it was New York's Fania Records, home to badass, ghetto-fabulous superstars like Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe (subject of Leon Ichaso's new biopic, El Cantante) that defined salsa worldwide.

And that's not to mention the city's loft jazz and modern composition scenes, which were also near their peaks in '77 and had similarly lasting impacts on modern music. Executive producer Nanette Burstein said in a phone interview that the filmmakers chose to "focus on punk, hip-hop, and disco" in NY77, and "didn't want to water down the story with other scenes." Fair enough. But you still sense some demographic pandering here.

What NY77 does extremely well is to show music as part of New York's blood and sinew. ESPN's The Bronx Is Burning doesn't really connect the Yankees drama to their hometown's upheaval, despite a counter-narrative involving the Son of Sam investigation and passing bursts of archival news footage. (As Martin, however, John Turturro's tantrums and prosthetic ears are awesome.) Integrating its musical tale with urban history, NY77 is truer to the spirit of Mahler's book, whose relatively small arts component it expands.

The film's treatment of the July 13 blackout is a good example. The scene is set by Bronx DJ, rapper, Cold Crush Brother, and all-around amazing storyteller Grandmaster Caz—a major figure who has been somewhat slighted by history (his rhyme book was an uncredited source of the hip-hop urtext "Rapper's Delight") but who remains active on the scene and charismatic as hell. He recalls DJ'ing a park party on 183rd Street in the Bronx when the power he was jacking from a lamppost suddenly cut out. After getting his own gear home safely (he and his partner Disco Wiz were strapped), he joined in the looting, snagging a Clubman 2/2 mixer he'd been coveting from the local sound equipment shop. In a remarkable bit of music-history theorizing, Caz suggests that the gear boosted that night citywide helped spur a generation of hip-hop DJs—and no doubt it did. Along with some impressive street-level news clips, there are other great blackout stories, too—like sex worker/performance artist Annie Sprinkle remembering that she was "in the middle of a blowjob with a client" when the lights went out.

There's less performance footage from major players than you might expect from a VH1 doc, and fewer soundbites, too. Blondie's Chris Stein gives great quote, and Tommy Ramone—the last Ramone standing—represents like an old hippie art prof. But no Debbie Harry, no Talking Heads, no Grandmaster Flash, no Donna Summer. You barely notice their absence, though, because frankly, in the era of YouTube and bonus DVDs, the lesser-known voices feel fresher and less manicured. And the relative lack of self-mythologizing stars allows the music to take its proper place in the larger story of the city.

In this way, NY77 does an honest job of capturing the collective creative oomph that drove parts of New York's artistic community in 1977. And while it ends by blaming real estate toxin for the end of an era, the unspoken postscript is that the '77 gene still thrives here. It's just that nowadays, the thugs come with ballpoint pens instead of machetes.

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