Jonathan Ullman: “I had access to all the stories from the Paradise Garage”

Écrit par Trax Magazine
Photo de couverture : ©D.R.
Le 05.12.2016, à 15h52
08 MIN LI-
Écrit par Trax Magazine
Photo de couverture : ©D.R.
Thirty years after its closure in 1987, the story of the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan’s legendary stomping ground and the birthplace of garage and house music, is about to be adapted for the cinema. The man behind the camera, director Jonathan Ullman, opens up for the first time about the movie. By Victor Branquart

Jonathan Ullman

Your films and documentaries are set to the backdrop of the Latin community, in the neighbourhoods of Washington Heights (The Incredibly Spectacular Dyckman Fireworks Co, Trouble in the Heights). Why focus on this place and this community?

I moved to this neighborhood in late 2007. Until then I didn’t know much about this part of New York, but I was very quickly taken by its rich culture, its history and its people. I can’t say how the idea of my first feature film, Trouble in the Heights (2011), came to me, but perhaps it was simply because I lived there. In any case, I don’t think I’ll have the opportunity to shoot a film again in my own neighborhood. It was an incredible experience to be able to film in a different and cinematographic way these streets that I walk on every day, but also to include my neighbours and the locals.

©Paul McKee 

In one of your documentaries, The Incredibly Spectacular Dyckman Fireworks Co, you use mixes inspired by Frankie Knuckles, the emblematic DJ and producer from Chicago, where you were born. Is it through Frankie Knuckles that you connected with the Paradise Garage?

In fact, it was Austin Downey who worked on the documentary music. He was a friend and, like me, a huge fan of Frankie Knuckles, who passed away when we were working on the music for the film in March 2014. It completely devastated us at the time. It’s the reason that we dedicated the soundtrack to Frankie, although his music had already inspired us for a long time. Later, it was the DJ and remixer Hex Hector who worked on the music for Trouble in the Heights. Working with DJs is somehow one of the guiding threads in my work.

To get back to my previous question, the Latin community was also well represented at the Paradise Garage… Is there a link there with your previous projects?

There is no direct link with the idea for this project. Actually I have been working on it for a very long time now and the links have, so to speak, created themselves. Many stories and people, even today, are linked in one way or another to the Paradise Garage. In 2000, I remember reading an article about the publication of My Life in the Paradise Garage – Keep on Dancing, the autobiography of Mel Cheren, one of the founders of Paradise Garage and West End Records.

I discovered so many incredible stories in that book. I contacted Mel the next day, before even finishing the book. I was sure that he would never give me the rights to his book, that dozens of producers would have already contacted him for an adaptation and that he would be absolutely overwhelmed with requests. But that wasn’t the case and Mel was very receptive. We met and I presented my idea of adapting the story for the cinema. A few years later, after writing a few drafts of the script, we separated in a very friendly way. We stopped working together because, in my opinion, from a scenaristic point of view, there was far too much material in this book to adapt it all correctly, while Mel wanted to protect the integrity of his book and the great story of the Garage he had written. Mel has a great story of his own. It also made the subject of a documentary, The Godfather of Disco. In any case, I chose to concentrate the story of my film on Larry Levan, on the backstage activities of the Garage, and to a lesser extent on the role of Michael Brody, the owner of the club and Mel Cheren’s lover. It is already a very delicate exercise to compact the ten years of the club’s existence (1978-1987) into a two-hour film, but on top of that we tried to extend it until Larry Levan’s death in 1992.

larry levanLarry Levan

Making a film of this type requires a documentary approach, gathering information, testimonials, etc… How have you been going about that?

The story of the film is not “based on”, as the saying goes. None of the characters, nor their stories, were invented. Until now, on this project, my work has been that of a documentarist, if not of historian. I only broke the rule once, inventing the character of the narrator. I also didn’t choose the easy route of combining some of the characters, such as David DePino, Joey Llanos or Michael de Benedictus, one of the founding members of the Peech Boys with Larry Levan. They are so unique and colorful that you immediately feel an affinity for each of them. I wanted to stay as true as possible to their testimonies and their expertise, which, once interspersed with each other, allowed me to reveal very intimate episodes in the life of Paradise Garage: the interactions between Larry Levan and Michael Brody, their conversations and their unknown stories… This film is both a dramatic story, exploring the tensions and conflicts between Larry Levan and Michael Brody, AIDS and the club’s closure, but also a celebration of music and love, stories of incredible people… That’s the sum of what came out of it.

Larry Levan & Michael DeBenedictus

In the first years, the AIDS virus devastated some of the communities that came together at the Paradise Garage, and it amputated a whole generation of incredible artists. Are you going to tell this part of the story in the film?

Absolutely. Also, one of the reasons that making this film is particularly difficult is that many emblematic characters of this era have disappeared. They died of AIDS in those years, like Michael Brody, three months after the Paradise Garage closed in December 1987, or Keith Haring in February 1990, a little later. And then of course Larry Levan passed away in 1992, Frankie Crocker in 2000, Frankie Knuckles in February 2014… This is why we are anxious to tell this story now. All, in their own way, embodied the Paradise Garage. The film will also talk about the creation of the charity organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), Mel Cheren’s role in it and in particular the April Showers, the first fundraiser that was held at the Paradise Garage in April 1982. Gay culture is completely linked to the Paradise Garage. We can’t tell the history of the club without talking about the place of gay culture, from its creation to its closing. It was partly for the queer community that the Garage was created in the first place, and partly because of AIDS that it closed. The impact of AIDS has been absolutely devastating for this whole community.

Did you ever experience the Paradise Garage, or even Frankie Knuckles’ Power Plant?

I was a teenager when I discovered house and the sounds of Frankie Knuckles. It was in the early 1990s, through Sound Factory, perpetuating the spirit of the Garage. This spirit of festivity, open-mindedness, diversity, unity, lived on in some of the New York and Chicago clubs and in the sets of the great names of house music. And then of course, I got to Larry Levan, to all the others and to the history of the Garage. Larry has left his mark on many artists and places, such as the Ministry of Sound in London, which he inaugurated shortly before his death. I hope that if the film meets the expected success, we will be able to do a UK premiere and a big party there, before going to Paris, then to Japan maybe… The Garage, its spirit and its music, seem more alive than ever, probably because new generations have given them new life over the last few years. David DePino says that the Garage is the “James Dean of clubs”.

Larry Levan

How did you meet David DePino and how did he react to your project ?

The first time we met, Mel Cheren said to me, “You have to talk to David DePino, he knows everything about the Garage and the people who contributed to building the place”. And it was true! David drew me up a plan and a very precise picture of the Garage. I think I’m the only one with a miniature and precise model of the club. It even has a removable roof! David really played a major role in this project, the role of “fact checker”. I don’t have the words to say how generous and honest he was. He clarified to me the relation between Michael de Benedictus and Larry Levan, the tragedy of their lives, the personal history of the club’s members, the place of drugs in their lives… I also met old staff members, founders, DJs, labels … I had access to all corners of the club and its stories.

Michael Brody, Joey Lanos

Inevitably, there will be people who say that your film doesn’t reflect what they experienced in the club. Are you afraid of misrepresenting the legacy of the Garage, by telling it through a movie, not a documentary, and thirty years after its closure ?

No, I’m not afraid of that. I think I’ve met and collaborated with the right people, and succeeded in drawing a precise portrait of the Garage and the characters. Everyone who went there lived their own experiences, with a unique perspective, different from all the others. No film can bring all points of view together – it’s impossible to capture even a single eight hour long evening in its entirety. Also I chose to tell the story not from the point of view of the dancefloor, but the DJ booth. I wanted to show what people didn’t see, the backstage, the  lived experiences of the members of the club behind the stage… when Larry was in the studio, how he composed his mixes and sets. We had to make choices, because of the format. For example, I chose not to talk about the moment when people would leave the club on Saturday or Sunday morning and immediately rush into the record stores to buy the albums that Larry had played the night before, or when they gathered at Washington Square Park to continue the party all afternoon. You can’t satisfy everybody.

©Bernie Bernthaler

This is about telling a story thirty years after it happened. To me, never going to the Garage was a kind of blessing, as bizarre as it may sound, because it offered me the necessary distance to not be blinded by my own perspective and my own experience there. It’s a very good thing to have been able to discover the Garage through the eyes and stories of so many different people. That said, time and nostalgia always alter memories one way or another, and that will inevitably have an effect.

Only one documentary exists about the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan and the beginings of garage and house music : Maestro by Joel Ramos. How do you explain the lack of productions on this period ?

By extension, you have to mention Paris is burning, the documentary that Jennie Livingston made in 1990 about the voguing scene during the eighties. It documents the history of this movement and talks about people who initiated it, with a real setback. That film is an incredible historical document. Some scenes have been shot at the Garage, the whole soundtrack is composed of garage music and some of the extravagant people that we discover in the documentary were also members of the Garage! It’s a very rare document, and i guess that’s crucial to my answer to your question: the main reason for the lack of productions on this period, these places and these people is that there is very little material available. We all know the sequences filmed during the closing night of the Garage; we know them in slow motion, accelerated, in the dark, in the light… But it’s always the same scene. I don’t believe that people would have filmed or photographed unknown scenes without ever making them public. For example, I don’t even know the voice of Michael Brody. It will be a real challenge for the actor playing his role.

“Larry would never have accepted seeing people busy doing anything other than dancing”

Also, those who knew and experienced the Garage lived in the present moment; they definitely imagined that it would last forever. I think the Garage and its atmosphere produced that feeling. This is one of the reasons why no one had the reflex to document all of it. And then not everyone could buy a camera at that time. It was expensive. I’m not even sure that cameras were allowed in the Garage… a far cry from the smartphone forests that we see at gigs today. There, we lived in the moment, that’s all, and Larry would never have accepted seeing people busy doing anything other than dancing.

Obviously, the music will have an essential place in the film. How did you work out the copyright for Larry Levan’s music ?

BMG Entertainment owns most of the rights to Larry’s tracks and almost all of those included in the film. We are partnering with them, with Sleeping Bag Records and other small labels, so we could use the most appropriate songs without breaking the budget. We had to make choices and, again, people may be surprised not to hear some of their favorite songs in the film.

When do you start shooting ? 

It should start between spring and summer 2017. All the film will be shot in New York, in seventies and eighties settings as much as possible. Not long ago, a rumor was going round that 84 King Street would be for sale. I don’t know if it’s true, but if it is, we have to try something! You never know…

Finally, are you also in favour of renaming King Street to Larry Levan Way ?

Of course! It’s a wonderful idea and I’d love to see the film play in its favour. You know, it’s a shame to see what the Paradise Garage’s building has become today, to see a page of history be erased like that. The city of Chicago has renamed South Jefferson Street to Frankie Knuckles Way. Why wouldn’t we do the same thing in New York by renaming King Street to Larry Levan Way!?

Film details: here

Jonathan Ullman’s IMDB: here

All videos and films by Jonathan Ullman: here


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