Last night at Sunshine Cinema in Lower Manhattan, the sights and sounds of the our nation's capital poured over the big screen. Over a decade in the making, the Roger Gastman-produced and Joseph Pattisall-directed The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan is one part artistic ode, one part portrait of a forgotten city. The film, narrated by Henry Rollins, builds over Go-Go's lo-fi percussion and explores the "other" Washington, D.C.
At the heart of the story lies a reclusive character: Dan Hogg. Born in 1969, Dan came of age as D.C.'s unique Go-Go scene blossomed. Inspired by the roll-call, when the bands shouted out the names of party-goers and crews, Dan resolved to find fame. Amidst the city's crack-fueled fall, Dan stuck to a singular name-building tactic: graffiti. His tag, Cool "Disco" Dan, echoed throughout all four quadrants of D.C., and he quickly, in graffiti terms, became all-city.
Pattisall's documentary chronicles the rise of Dan's legend. It begins with typical childhood stories and escalates when Dan is faced with the breakup of his parents—a catastrophic event with long-lasting mental implications. As Dan grows, D.C. grows. Pattisall views Dan in the context of the city's black population. In the best times, the flourishing Go-Go scene represents an escape from the reality of inner-city life. The roll-calls boost egos, and the bands define the sound of the Capital. Crack hits, and the city recoils. Dan's work, the slowly developing Cool "Disco" hand style, becomes embroiled in a larger struggle that mirrors his own. The film succeeds through context. Dan, a local legend, is nothing without his backdrop. While he's on par with Go-Go pioneer Chuck Berry and "mayor for life" Marion Barry, he's also, like them, inextricably tied to the workings of a segregated, fractured urban landscape. Dan defines the visual culture of 1980s D.C. He also defines the District's divide. Two sides, white and black, functioning (often) in opposition. Somewhat unbelievably, Dan's great achievement is tying the City together.
If "Killroy Was Here" is the world's most famous tag, Cool "Disco" Dan isn't far behind. D.C. residents from Barry Farm to Woodley Park knew the name. Most people wondered "Who is Cool 'Disco' Dan?" Speculation led to exposure (albeit reluctant) in the Washington Post and acquisitions by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Cool "Disco" Dan became a household name.
Pattisall's portrayal of D.C., despite a barrage of bleak images, lovingly celebrates the District's indigenous arts. His film, a perfect follow up to Gastman's Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s (an exhibition that ran last winter at the Corcoran), strikes amid a big, bad shitstorm in D.C. It serves, like Dan, in opposition to the global view of the city. The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan reminds us of several important things: art has healing power; art has the capacity to define space and time; art has a life beyond the artist.
Cool "Disco" Dan wrote his name to be known. His aspirations were local, his beat tied to the neighborhoods that birthed Go-Go and the tracks of Washington, D.C.'s Red Line—areas he understood and recognized as important to local myth-making. Through the work of Gastman and Pattisall, Dan's legend will spread. Their documentary is a triumph in folk/visionary art history.