Film Review | 2014
"From spotting fashion brands that are still going strong to the music and club dynamics one becomes engulfed in a swathe of nostalgia to another time that has, through manipulated means, created a successful cocoon of the nightclub in the 1980s."
WILL YOU DANCE WITH ME
DIR. Derek Jarman
For its World Premiere producer Ron Peck introduced Will You Dance With Me with BFI's Brian Robinson as part of BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 2014.
What is this?
Ron: Well it certainly is something of a curiosity with it genuinely is a piece of work by Derek. It was made in 1984, exactly 30 years ago, and it was part of the experimental work that we were doing originally for a film we were doing called 'Empire State'. This was made three years later may be more of a mainstream film but at the beginning we were just experimenting how we could put this film together which was going to be about 20 or so desperate characters in London who all end up in a nightclub in London called 'Empire State'. When we started it we thought we were going to filming it on location in fact we ended up building it in a studio. But the main location we were going to be using was a nightclub in Mile End called Benjys.
I don't know if there are people here who remember it?
A few people in the audience put their hands up and there is a splattering of laughter and giggles.
Ron: It was actually my local I lived about two minutes away and it was a curious place because it was a family run and it was the sort of place you could probably take your mum and dad. It attracted a very local crowd and it was a very relaxed and very open crowned and they were open to us hiring it. We hired it for an afternoon and evening I think and invited about 100 people so we set up a fictional night in a club and the people in this club where actors we were trying out regulars who used to go to the club, the regular bar staff and a DJ. I was working with one camera working with some actors doing small bits of improvisation I think and I asked Derek if he would film another aspect of the club. This was to do with the flow of movement and the characters.
I remember Robert Altman's film 'Nashville', films that had a lot of characters and I also asked him if he could try to find a way we could film dance in a different way. I found a few notes the other day, I was looking to see if I had written anything down at the time and I found a set of notes I had given Derek. I asked him film dance in a way that could convey a sense of release because the whole film was about social tension in a way and peoples difficulties – it was the Thatcher era – and the nightclub was the type of place for escape and let yourself and that was what Derek set out to do.
It is a very curious film as you never see Derek as he is always behind the camera. Everything you see is what he filmed and what he picked out and having looked at it a few times I am amazed at his control of the camera. It was shot on VHS which was new technology at the time and he talks to people so you hear his voice and he gradually gets more and more involved with the people in the club. It's an experiment it was never intended that we would show it and there isn't a beginning, a middle or an end, but it does have a kind of progression in it.
Because it was a test it obviously never had a title but I notice when I ran it that Derek asks somebody if they would dance with him. The only tension in the film is does the guy dance with him and I let you see the film to figure that one out. To me it is visually really exciting and though it is on VHS some how the tape is completely intact and if you allow for that and it works for you after a few minutes you will just get swept up in it.
"The film doesn't add to Jarman's work or his lasting legacy it's just a bit of over indulgent fun and, as a one off, it is pretty fun to watch."
I think it is important to read producer Ron Pecks comments on the film as the chances of seeing this film is a rather slim and it is important to have some context that he affords 'Will You Dance With Me?'.
I don't know where to start with this film. Peck isn't wrong when he says there is no start to the film or much of a structure but it is a curiosity and after a few minutes it does take on a somewhat interesting life of its own and it becomes very compulsive. Though this was by no means a straight-up experiment using real people Jarman and Peck used an invited crowd of friends, locals, and actors which taints slightly the 'experimental' aspect the film might have been looking for. Yet looking past that over the course of the few hours that Jarman was filmmaking the club does come to life. It is quite noticeable that nobody in the club plays up to the camera or seeks to be in a scene, well besides the DJ who felt slightly left out and a rather jiving older patron decked out all in white. Most of the people drank, smoked and danced.
After 30 years the VHS quality of the film is good but the size of the screen at NFT1 and the dizzying effects of the lights within the club is tricky to watch, or enjoy. And yet even with all this going against it the film offers up some interesting observations that are good to explore. From spotting fashion brands that are still going strong to the music and club dynamics one becomes engulfed in a swathe of nostalgia to another time that has, through manipulated means, created a successful cocoon of the nightclub in the 1980s. These little insights into this historic part of the LGBT community in the 80s becomes more intriguing the more the film goes on.
Every so often one is able to pick up some of the conversations taking place, someone talking about dating others talking about Australian backpackers, at times I was finding myself straining to try and figure out just what was going on in the club. And then there are some of the things we have lost that are on brazen show here – smoking for one (and reasonably priced pints), good music and the fact that mobile phones and social media was still decades away.
The film does allow you to watch people socialise in a way you won't see them do today and you would be hard pushed to go in to a club in London and find anyone dancing or talking. They'd be wearing the same clothes and oversized glasses thanks to vintage today's trends and they would be looking at their phones every two seconds like it's become some added appendage that is fused to their hands, hips and heads.
One of the highlights in the film came during one of the more upbeat dance sequences between a guy and girl – the song being the unmistakable Hazel Dean 80s hit Whatever I do (Whatever I Am) – their little routine gained a polite applause from the audience. In fact the young man in the scene was in attendance that evening and he got a lauder applause when he was brought to the stage.
It was never clear from the start of Peck's introduction how much of the film was created and how much of it was allowed to happen naturally. The editing of the footage is slightly all over the place and the only real odd thing about the film is that for a gay nightclub the vibe of the place was pretty vanilla and I think there was only one scene were two guys kissed. Most of the first 20 minutes everyone seems to be standing around and avoiding Jarman who in turn takes his time to try and connect with the people he is filming.
It's fair to say you would have to be a hardcore Jarman fan, nee appreciator, to sit through 70 minutes of pretty much nothing. The film doesn't add to Jarman's work or his lasting legacy it's just a bit of over indulgent fun and, as a one off, it is pretty fun to watch.