Sometimes it can be hard to review lower budget movies that cover similar ground as more successful award winning higher budget movies. In 1997, “Boogie Nights” came out and introduced the 70’s to modern audiences with a kinetic energy, impeccable acting and skilled storytelling. Wolfe Films, who specializes in LBGT cinema, brings “Funkytown” (with its modest $7,000,000 budget) to audiences and attempts to harness that same dynamism and experience.
You can tell a lot of love and dedication went into the film based on the look of the film alone. Unfortunately, that’s where the praise stops. Certain films have been able to successfully build upon already existing, popular motifs and go their own direction, and some films just seem to imitate the success. This is where “Funkytown” resides, emulating more successful movies to tell a seemingly new story.
Bastien Lavallee (Patrick Huard) is the host of the most popular show in Québec, Disco Dance Party. He is a superstar among Québecois society. Half-heartedly vying for the same superstardom is Jonathan Aronson (Paul Doucet) whose openly gay persona is propelling the dawn of a new culture. Tino Deifiori (Justin Chatwin) is a young waiter who works at his mother’s restaurant and tears up the dance floors at night with his girlfriend Tina (Romina D’Ugo). There are several additional characters who help fuel the rather convoluted script: a model trying to become a singer, a bearded, smoked-glasses-wearing owner of the club and a has-been superstar trying to keep herself in the game. Most of the characters are one-dimensional caricatures. There are some tertiary characters that are virtually walking cartoons. For instance, Tino’s Italian friends and the tough biker-looking guy collecting money from Bastien.
Bastien is the primary focus as the film follows his career and life declining amidst the rollicking lifestyle of 70’s Disco. The same career that made him ultimately breaks him. The bad times just keep piling up for Bastien. He starts back up on drugs, gets dumped by his model girlfriend, his wife finds out and kicks him out, loses custody of his child, ends up on a cut rate sitcom and it only gets worse from there. Patrick Huard does a terrific job with the role. He wears beat-down expressions very well on his dashing visage. The other actor with the most screen time is Justin Chatwin. He is serviceable but unfortunately, he doesn’t show the emotional depth needed and frankly is not that strong of a dancer to be portrayed as the ‘hottest new dancer in Québec.’ Travolta had an effortless dance quality and charm in his performances in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Staying Alive.” Even Wahlberg had that ‘it’ factor in his acting and dancing in “Boogie Nights”. The difference is that they were main characters and Chatwin is not the main focus.
Actually, the script tries to shoehorn in too many different plots and subplots. Almost all of the characters go through some degree of personal strife throughout the film. Unfortunately, it does not resonate as well with the viewer as it did in “Boogie Nights”. Here, it seems forced. The film uses generalities in this sense and becomes a sort of checklist of 70’s staples being checked off. Drug use? Check. People using each other for personal gain? Check? Downfall of an icon? Check. Suicide? Sure, what the hell. Check. “Funkytown” has so many similarities to “Boogie Nights” that it is almost impossible to separate the two. Each film starts off with a long, winding camera shot that ends up in the middle of a dance party. I would list more scenes but they would be spoiler-filled, you’ll know them when you see them. Another drawback is that the movie plays it too safe, never showing anything too shocking or truly depressing. The reality is, the story would have worked better as an uncensored pay channel cable series that has more time to flesh out and really dig deep into these characters’ lives.
Aside from actual acting, the real main star is Québec. The film never forgets to mention when and where its story takes place. This movie is about Québec’s place in the disco era. There are nice geographically relevant ideas touched upon such as Québec voting on trying to secede from the rest of Canada. This is a piece of history that really could have been built up instead of just having it casually mentioned every couple of scenes. The notion of new wave music emerging is another interesting thread that wasn’t pulled far enough. Also, there’s some early dialogue talking about how competitive dance clubs were with each other, even on an international level, but this is yet another example of a missed opportunity by the filmmakers.
“Funkytown” has several other positives though. First off, the soundtrack is as disco-laden as possible. These are highly listenable tunes that never seem to get old. There are some obvious choices as well as some surprise songs that work well. The spoken language splits between French and English throughout the movie. It switches appropriately depending on the social situation where the relevant language is needed. This gives an honest feel to the geography of the film. Much care went into the look and feel of the ’70s and it is all displayed onscreen. Clothing choices look authentic and not over the top. To go with this, the cinematography is excellent. Ronald Plante, who has been nominated many times for his work, did a wonderful job.
The standard DVD of “Funkytown” is presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen. The coloring has a vintage tinge to it that suits the picture well. The detail itself has a film-like quality to it and is not at all razor sharp however, this seems intentional to reflect the era in which it takes place. There is some shimmering around the one hour mark that is quite apparent and comes and goes throughout the rest of the movie. It’s not a devastating drawback but looks like it could have been avoided with some tinkering to the master.
There are two listening options. One is a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround option that is lively and plays all the disco hits accurately and with some fine highs and lows. There is also a 2.0 option which sounds limited, but just as good. I sampled this track with headphones and it displayed some nice low end.
The extras are light. There is a trailer for the film itself and trailers for eight other Wolfe features. They are as follows:
“Leave it on the Floor”
The ’70s disco film genre is an entity unto itself. There are kings (“Boogie Nights”), princes (“54” and “The Last Days of Disco”) and then there are the jesters, which best describes “Funkytown.” It does its best to mimic better productions although it ultimately ends up looking like a weak imitation in comparison. However, if you separate it from the pack and watch it on its own merits, it can be a mildly entertaining movie with wonderful cinematography and a great soundtrack.