the 10 best films about clubbing

Kickstart your weekend with this playlist of feature films and documentaries that celebrate clubbing in all its excess.

by Colin Crummy
19 August 2016, 3:15pm

Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music 
This 2001 Channel 4 documentary clocks in at a lengthy 145 minutes, but is widely regarded as one of the best films on clubbing culture. It traces the explosion of house music from Chicago underground night spots, and sees DJs turn into superstars, nightclubs into global brands, and clubbing into a way of life. The music's not bad either.

"The world is changing, music is changing, drugs are changing, even men and women are changing. One thousand years from now, there'll be no guys or girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me." Mark Renton sums up the future of clubbing in 1997. Director Danny Boyle, meanwhile, effortlessly films that moment where a club night feels like everything.

How can we be delicate about this? The nightclub owner is often swimming in the sketchier side of the business world and Limelight, the story of the rise and fall of one of the most eccentric, will resonate with anyone who has had dodgy dealings behind the scenes. In the early 90s eye patch wearing Peter Gatien ran the hugely influential New York clubs Tunnel, Palladium, and The Limelight. In Limelight, director Billy Corben focuses on Gatien's most notorious club, which had a reputation for sexual wildness, pill popping, and celebrities clamoring to get in on the action to an industrial techno soundtrack. Sounds great? It didn't to Mayor Giulliani, who closed Limelight's doors as part of an island-wide clean up. In this documentary, Corben captures the madness, the excess and the wider forces of conservatism that wanted clubbing shut down.

The Last Days of Disco 
Whit Stillman puts Jane Austen style society politics on the Studio 54 dancefloor; the result is the sharpest depiction of dancefloor as social climbing spot and indicator of status. Chloë Seveigny and Kate Beckinsale are the Waspish Manhattanites in LBDs. Stillman's script, meanwhile, vibrates with wit.

Mia Hansen-Løve devised Eden — a film set in the emerging dance scene in 1990s Paris — because she said was no film that really took club culture seriously. So in Eden, clubbing isn't just backdrop; it dominates the main character, Paul Vallée's (played by Félix de Givry) life. He's a DJ coming up in the French touch scene, which also includes Daft Punk, Cassius, and Justice, but who doesn't quite hit the same international heights. Eden is about clubbing as obsession and the hangover it can produce. It is also an intoxicating documentation of the scene itself, with a mirth-inducing cameo from Daft Punk.

Paris Is Burning 
Jennie Livingston's snapshot of Manhattan's LGBTQ Ball competitions in the 80s is so alive with color, wit, and fabulousness that no amount of watching Drag Race reruns (a show which acknowledges its huge debt to Ball culture) can make up for not being there yourself. There is huge tragedy at the heart of Paris is Burning, as all of its voguers were caught up in issues of poverty, discrimination, and an emerging AIDS epidemic which was to devastate the community. But it's in the defiant, celebratory strut set to a disco beat that the film finds its feet. The best evocation of clubbing as community, bar none.

Human Traffic
"I'm having the best time being off my pickle and feeling the music!" The problem with clubbing scenes in cinema is that the director — more often than not, a middle aged straight white guy who hasn't seen a dancefloor in a decade — recreates a half remembered feeling from his youth. That, or the mood is so polished and performative, that it fails to capture the messy world of nightclubbing. Human Traffic avoids all this, focusing on five mad for it mates in late 90s Cardiff at the height of the 90s club scene. It captures all the pill popping, life-escaping wonderment of weekend club culture. A sequel — where the gang head to Ibiza — has apparently been given the go ahead. We can only hope Human Traffic's breakout star, Danny Dyer, returns for more wanking in front of the bedroom mirror.

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell 
We're in the petri dish of late 70s/early 80s Downtown New York for Matt Wolf's emotive and nuanced portrait of an artist on the disco scene. Arthur Russell was an avant-garde composer, singer, songwriter, and disco producer who found an evangelical following at the legendary experimental music club The Kitchen. Mixing archive footage from disco nights with contemporary interviews from those who knew him. Wolf builds a picture of a complex and compelling artist. Once the credits roll, you'll be hunting out Russell's unique sounds of an era.

Two dramas set in Studio 54? The iconic New York nightspot may be the most over exposed in clubbing folklore but watch Mark Christopher's 54 and you will cease to wonder why. 54 is clubbing at its most glamorous, hedonistic, and toxic as seen through the eyes of cherubic busboy Shane (Ryan Philippe), loses his shirt and falls in love with everything under the disco lights. The film was initially snipped to present a tamer — less gay — version of events. The director's cut released last year is the one to watch to get the full, unbridled behind-the-scenes take on New York's most legendary club.

Don't Forget to Go Home (Feiren) 
Brilliantly titled and so wonderfully evocative that the scent of poppers, sweat, and sense of sleep deprivation practically pours off the screen, this 2006 documentary about the Berlin culture of 72 hour non-stop clubbing gets the skinny on Berghain, Watergate, Bar 25, and Club Der Visonaere. Don't expect polished, nightlife visuals here though; Don't Forget to Go Home is mostly on camera testimonies from the clubbers themselves. The lo fi approach works in the film's favor. You haven't lived until you've listened to seasoned clubbers describe scenes of sexual pile ups at Berghain.


Text Colin Crummy

Studio 54
Paris Is Burning
human traffic
pump up the volume: the history of house music