derek jarman’s rediscovered 80s gay nightclub film comes to nyc
‘Will You Dance with Me?’ is a document of London nightlife in a gentler time, when “Relax” was charting, a pint cost 72p, and you’d take your mom to your local gay night.
A guy in a royal-blue Umbro tracksuit wearing a single pearl earring is breakdancing on a near-empty dancefloor, backlit by smears of moving neon light. It's a little after 6pm at Benjy's, a club in the Mile End district of East London, and the year is 1984.
Will You Dance with Me?, filmed on an early Olympus VHS camera, is a 78-minute-long tribute to the community-forging power of nightclubs and the ecstasy of dance, shot by the late pioneering punk film director Derek Jarman.
The footage, collected over seven hours (masquerading as a single take), is the result of a test shoot commissioned by Jarman's friend, filmmaker Ron Peck. Peck was gathering material for what would become his 1987 clubland movie Empire State, and dispatched Jarman to his local club, Benjy's, to shoot a crowd of regulars mingling and moving with potential cast members.
The material didn't end up in the film. Peck's initial freestyle, roving-camera treatment for the movie didn't fly with investors. But Jarman's portrait of this local early-80s club — of b-boys, New Romantics, permed women, and guys in patterned wool sweaters all popping and swaying to long-forgotten hits like Hazel Dean's "Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go)" — has its own artistic merit.
Peck archived the footage not long after it was shot, but rediscovered it in 2013. The following year, it screened for the first time at the British Film Institute's Flare LGBTQ Film Festival, where, to Peck's surprise, audience members clapped and whooped after each song and danced into the street after the premiere. Starting tomorrow, it begins its first-ever theatrical run, at Metrograph in New York. Go prepared to see essentially nothing happen (this is not a movie with a plot to eat popcorn to) but also to enjoy yourself massively.
We spoke to Peck about revisiting 80s London and Jarman's unique, immersive approach to documenting dance.
Was Derek a regular at Benjy's?
I think he had been a few times. He lived in the center of London, so coming to East London would have been kind of an adventure then. Benjy's very much had a local clique, which was pretty common during that time all over London. All of the far corners of London were an alternative to the West End and the center of town, where the nightclubs and the discos were getting bigger and bigger. Benjy's was essential to people that lived within two or three miles of it.
I love that you can see these small groupings of different subcultures.
Yes! That was one attraction to this type of local place at the time: they were quite mixed. Benjy's was a local club that had gay nights. And people who weren't gay came as well. Anyone felt comfortable. In the West End and central London, there was a much harder atmosphere. At Benjy's people were there with their moms. I can't remember now who was gay and who wasn't gay. It didn't seem to matter. That was a very liberating thing.
Although what you see [in the film] is a reconstruction, because it was about one hundred people who were invited, it's pretty representative of who went there. And it kind of took on a life of its own. Although it started off as a fictional space, it became a real space. People were interacting for real rather than acting something out.
Were they given any direction?
They were. But what we tried to do in an indirect way was to set everything going, then let the camera itself find things. I think people were a little bit reluctant to begin with, then because the camera was a very discreet camera, and Derek himself is discreet, he became part of it. He swam in it.
How did you first meet Derek?
I met him in a gay club. Quite quickly we were both talking about filmmaking. It was more or less at the time when he was preparing his film Sebastiane, and I was working on Nighthawks. Both of them were being made independently, so we shared a lot of our experiences. We were very much comrades. We both opted to not really join in on the industry. We both celebrated that, I think.
I read that this footage inspired Derek's video for the Pet Shop Boys track "Heart."
That's right. He made that two years later. I knew the manager [at Benjy's] very well, so I was able to put in a good word with him [about shooting there]. And by the time Derek did the Pet Shop Boys piece, he really knew the place because he'd worked there already.
When you watch the film now, what memories does it bring back?
I knew most of the people who were there that night — they were all from different parts of my life. Some of them I'd worked with before, some were regulars from the bar, and some were the actual bar staff.
What directions had you given Derek?
When I was archiving stuff, I found a note where I asked Derek to concentrate on [certain things]. It was supposed to be this transfer from one person to another, to record dance in a very dynamic way. Which I think he really did well. It's not a documentary. I think of it as Derek thinking on his feet. From moment to moment, he's making judgements about what to frame and where to go.
What about 1984 specifically does the film recall for you?
In a sense, it was a very accommodating time. People were relaxed with each other and relaxed in this space. You might remember that there's an older man dancing. He was about 80 years old, and he went every Sunday. It was his absolute night out of the week. He wasn't brought in specially, he was one of the local regulars. I don't know if that would be quite the same today. The real pleasure for me now is just seeing people enjoy themselves so much.
"Will You Dance with Me?" is screening at Metrograph in New York from August 5 to 11.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Stills from Will You Dance with Me?