Montreal, 1976: The city is on an Olympic high, in both official languages, and it's still the cultural and economic centre of the country, so glamorous that it attracts visits from the likes of Mick Jagger. And disco rules.
But life at the top can be perilous - and not just for disco, which would soon be declared on T-shirts everywhere to suck. Already, things were changing dramatically for Montreal as political and linguistic tensions drove Anglos and corporate headquarters out of the province. The exodus to Toronto changed the dynamic not just of Montreal, but of the country.
The climate of the day serves as more than a backdrop for Funkytown, the new film directed by Daniel Roby ( La Peau blanche) and written by Steve Galluccio ( Mambo Italiano). The film is a metaphor for the sea change the city experienced between 1976 and 1980, when the Parti Québécois held (and lost) its first referendum on separation.
The story centres on the Starlight discotheque, the hot spot in town, where celebrities are fixtures and the line-ups are long. Inside, there is cocaine, a floor for gay men and pounding disco music - in English. The film is fiction, but borrows from real life events and people. The Starlight, for example, is modelled on Montreal's legendary Lime Light disco of that era.
Bastien Lavallée (Patrick Huard) is the MC at the Starlight and hosts influential TV and radio disco shows. He has a wife and daughter, but as his showbiz star rises, he spends less time at his suburban home, and more time at his girlfriend's swanky Habitat 67 pad. An aspiring model, Adriana (Sarah Mutch) secures a spot reporting on fashion for Bastien's TV show, Party Disco Dance, despite the fact she can't speak French and her hosting in English isn't great either.
Jonathan (Paul Doucet) is the Franglais-speaking trends reporter for Party Disco Dance. Openly gay, he falls for young, closeted Tino (Justin Chatwin), who dances on the show with his girlfriend Tina ( So You Think You Can Dance Canada finalist Romina D'Ugo).
Gilles (Raymond Bouchard) is the bottom-feeding record producer who has lent his son Daniel (François Létourneau) the money to open the Starlight. Mimi (Geneviève Brouillette), an aging singer once managed by Gilles, is trying to make the shift to disco queen, but her demo won't get played because it's in French.
The dialogue is in both English and French - more the former than the latter, which has attracted some flak in Quebec. But it's an honest reflection of the time, when English dominated the establishment landscape. Roby cleverly has Bastien speak English to his daughter, while she, representing the future, replies in French. In another scene, Daniel changes the sign outside to read Le Starlight - while his father rails against him for not standing up to the language police.
There's a lot of ground to cover in this ensemble piece, and the threads are uneven - not just in terms of depth, but quality. Mimi, one of the more interesting characters, disappears for too long, only to resurface toward the end in a fairly predictable triumph.
The script is often contrived and predictable, and some scenes are so poorly executed - two pivotal scenes in New York, in particular - that they are more likely to elicit guffaws and eye-rolls than the emotional response the story deserves.
But some performances are terrific, especially Huard as the drug-taking, downward-spiralling Bastien, and Doucet as the brash but deep-feeling gossip columnist.
And the film faithfully captures the era, thanks to production designer Jean Bécotte, costumes by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt and a soundtrack that will have you shaking your groove thing as you emerge from the theatre after two-and-a-quarter hours at the disco.
- Directed by Daniel Roby
- Written by Steve Galluccio
- Starring Patrick Huard, Paul Doucet and Justin Chatwin
- Rating: 18A in Ontario, 14A in British Columbia