A standing-room-only crowd settled in for Downtown Calling Friday, filling ATA’s small space with a quiet symphony of claustrophobic rustling. Notwithstanding a glaring projection hiccup, the film — director Shan Nicholson’s first — was a smashing success, effectively capturing the vibrant, boundary-exploding club scene in 1980’s New York City.
Narrated by Debbie Harry, and featuring appearances from an ever-expanding cast of characters that include Fab Five Freddy and former NYC mayor Ed Koch, Nicholson’s documentary chronicles an oft over-looked epoch in the Big Apple’s fertile cultural life — a span of time located roughly between the invention of punk rock and hip hop and the arrival of AIDS and crack cocaine. Before it was Giuilianified, the dysfunctional, crime-ridden New York of the late 70’s was host to an outpouring of interdisciplinary, cross-pollinating creativity. Artistic movements like the rise of graffiti coexisted with the development of New Wave and Electro music, and the hipsters of the time gathered in friendly, gleeful nightclubs (some with lockers to hold changes of clothes) to dance the night away and bask in the left-brained majesty of their contemporaries.
Cutting between copious vintage footage and fruitfully conducted interviews, the filmmakers paint an intriguing picture of an embattled but proud young city, a metropolis in the process of inventing new forms of expression that would have overweening influence on the generations to come. Nicholson is a DJ when he’s not a filmmaker, and his love for this period of cultural history is obviously and affectingly borne out of its crucial importance in the development of the DJ’s art. He also has a knack for tracking down the surviving members of the Downtown scene, explaining in a post-screening Q+A that his network of interviewees continued to grow as each one in turn suggested old friends for him to find and film.
Though the celebration of underground culture in radical Downtown nightclub parties makes great subject matter, it’s a mammoth task, and the film’s one notable flaw is its forgivable inability to quite wrap its jaws around such wide-ranging material. But despite this and other niggling slip-ups common to first-time filmmakers, Downtown Calling is the perfect Noise Pop movie: fun, informative, musical, and short.