Preview: The London Film Festival

AS THE London Film festival opens, two films celebrate the way nonconformity and strangeness eventually become the mainstream, writes Alistair Harkness.

The 56th London Film Festival got under way last night with the European premiere of Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion animation film Frankenweenie (* * * *) and if it felt like a strange film to open with, it really wasn’t – and not just because Burton shot the movie here and has, over the past decade or so, made London his adopted home.

Expanding it from his own 1984 live-action short film of the same name, the film – a black-and-white ode to the classic horror movies the director grew up on – represents a fascinating chapter in Burton’s career, at once bringing him full circle to one of his earliest efforts but also illustrating a surprising cultural shift that has taken place in the 30 years since Burton entered the film industry.

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Back then Burton was an anomaly at Disney, and was actually fired after finishing the short because its premise – a kid brings his dead dog back to life using Frankenstein-esque mad science – was deemed unsuitable for kids. As Burton told me yesterday at the press conference for the film: “It wasn’t like The Apprentice: ‘You’re fired!’ It was a bit more Disney-friendly, but it was a strange period in the company’s history.

“It’s changed over the years and is a whole different place now, but Disney did give me the opportunity to do the film, so even though it wasn’t released properly, the opportunity to do it was great.”

Still, there remains a delicious irony in the fact what was once considered too fringe is now considered uncontroversial family fare and, while some may rue that change, there’s something wonderful about the fact that a movie featuring a genuine tragedy, a reanimated dog, a celebration of thinking for oneself and an appreciation for outmoded filmmaking techniques is fodder for populist entertainment. It illustrates the way artists can subtly and slyly help change the mainstream for the better before people – even those instrumental in changing it – have a chance to notice. Indeed, when I asked Burton if he was surprised that his cinematic outlook on life was now part of the mainstream, he said he wasn’t even sure that was true – even though the fact that his films have collectively grossed more than $1.7 billion at the box-office is testament to the contrary.

Sly subversion of the mainstream by outsiders is also at the heart of another LFF film: The Secret Disco Revolution (* * * *), an intriguingly argued documentary that makes a case for the disco explosion of the 1970s being a subversive political act. If the civil rights movement and folk music were inextricably linked to Woodstock and Vietnam, then disco, with its polyester uniforms, syncopated dance moves and sweatbox venues, helped create a secret army that eventually led to an important societal revolution. How so? By facilitating, as the film puts it, “the mass liberation of gays, blacks and women from the clutches of a conservative rock dominated world”. The quotation marks are important here, not just because that’s a direct line from the film, but because The Secret Disco Revolution’s Canadian writer/director/producer Jamie Kastner presents this thesis somewhat ironically as a way of underscoring just how subversive the movement really was. Indeed it was so subversive that many of the major participants he interviews – including Gloria Gaynor and Harry Wayne Casey (KC from KC and the Sunshine Band) – laugh off the notion that it was about anything more than having a good time, something the film cheekily gets around by suggesting that covert action was essential for spreading its message. It’s an approach that flies in the face of most music docs, which tend to fall over themselves to make the case for a particular music’s cultural importance. As a result, the tongue-in-cheek theories proposed here end up seeming more persuasive, especially when backed up by cogent arguments about, say, the way disco broke into the charts without any radio play thanks to the emergence of cheaper clubs in recession-hit New York. Kastner’s trump card, though, is his priceless interview with the Village People, the collective members of which grow increasingly tetchy as they’re quizzed on the blatant gay subtexts of their hits.

“There were no double entendres in any of the songs,” says one, as the group unconvincingly argue that In the Navy really was about joining the navy and that YMCA was nothing more than an album filler and definitely not about cruising for guys (the album it was on, incidentally, was called Cruisin’). Intercut with an interview with the Village People’s French producer Henri Belolo as he confirms that the songs’ openly gay composer Jacques Morali was blatantly trying to advance a gay agenda within the mainstream, it proves that for some, disco genuinely was a secret revolution.