Art Doc of the Week | What is the Paradise Garage?
The Paradise Garage – blueprint for and avatar of dance-music scored club life, a building block of House music, and domain of the late, immeasurably influential DJ Larry Levan – is now such a touchstone of club culture and cred that even people born long after its closing on September 27, 1987 cite it as an influence on them. Opened at 84 King St. in New York in 1977, the members-only club (a converted parking garage) was a spot where black, brown and white bodies (queer, straight and otherwise) sweated, danced, fucked, and loved against the backdrop of groundbreaking dance music. It’s where the dancefloor ideal of unity across all social and cultural barriers was put into practice.
Though a revered cultural institution, and one much cited across books and blogs, there’s yet to be a film or TV telling of the Garage’s tale. Thus far, the closest and most detailed is Josell Ramos’ 2003 documentary Maestro, a densely informative look at New York City’s dance culture and its gay roots, spanning the late ‘60s through ‘70s disco, and on to clubs like Sanctuary, The Saint, and Paradise Garage. The BBC documentary Pump Up the Volume is also an excellent resource for anyone looking to learn the history of House and the origins of today’s EDM scene.
But it looks like the Garage might finally get its due. Writer-director Jonathon Ullman is currently working on a feature film about the iconic spot, with former Paradise Garage DJ David Depino as executive producer. British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith has been cast as Larry Levan. In the meantime, check out Ullman’s 2014 short documentary What is the Paradise Garage?
Filmed in 2014 at a block party held in front of the Garage’s old home to commemorate the club and its loyal clientele, the short is little more than a stream of testimonials broken up by fantastic footage of old Garage heads dancing to the tunes made famous by Levan, and that defined his eccentric, far-reaching style. There’s no way such a short (less than 20 minutes) film could really do justice to the Garage, so Ullman’s choice to just let fans and acolytes gush makes sense. That doesn’t excuse all the film’s shortcomings, though. For one, none of the speakers are identified, not even legendary singer Jocelyn Brown (shown performing the classic cover of “Aint No Mountain High Enough” that she recorded with the group Inner Life), who explains that Levan had a twenty-two minute mix of the song that “wore me out.”
But the film absolutely does what it set out to do: show the lasting power of the Garage as a space, and of Levan’s near-mystical mastery of the turntable. The short is crammed with wall-to-wall music as the camera captures the joyfully moving bodies of people of all races, shapes, sizes, and ages. Hardcore devotees from back in the day have the club’s insignia tattooed on their biceps. Dance music culture is now branded as “youth culture,” which admittedly it is. But What is the Paradise Garage? shows that it’s also so much more. By simply letting the camera run, Ullman captures the way music can seep into the skin, literally changing and saving lives over the span of decades.