Movie Review: “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan — Graffiti Master
With an eclectic visual style that includes animation, and narration spoken with conviction by D.C. native Henry Rollins, The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan tries to accentuate the positive.
The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan, directed by Joseph Pattisall & Roger Gastman. At the Museum of of Fine Arts Sept. 25 through Oct. 5
By Betsy Sherman
Cool “Disco” Dan was here. And here. And seemingly everywhere.
Joseph Pattisall and Roger Gastman’s documentary about African-American graffiti writer Dan Hogg, whose alter-ego became a source of mystery and delight to Washington, D.C. residents in the 1980s and ‘90s, is not only about a place. It’s also about a time — the years just before and during the turbulent era when D.C. was the homicide capital of America. Through the life story of this shy and troubled, but also resilient, young man, and a host of other interviewees, the filmmakers successfully shed light on “chocolate” D.C. at the end of the 20th century.
One speaker explains how Washington consists of “the federal culture and the true culture.” Most of the voices in the movie come from the true culture, the city’s black community. Hogg, born in 1969, joined that community when his family moved from Boston to D.C. The city, which had been in the thick of the civil rights movement, was still coping with the aftermath of riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King. The boy learned to draw by copying the cover art of his father’s LPs. Then his parents broke up, and his father died from a brain aneurism. The dual shocks to his sense of security sent Dan into a depression.
Dan and his peers found uplift in the city’s joyful music scene. Bands played a mixture of funk and Caribbean music that was dubbed Go-Go (as funkster Chuck Brown says in the movie, “ ’cause it jus’ kep’ goin’ and goin’ ”). This vibrant alternative to hip-hop spawned fan aggregations known as crews. Audiences loved it when singers did a roll-call of crew-members’ nicknames. An introvert by nature, Dan accomplished his own shout-out by creating a name and writing it on walls and in subway cars. His nom-de-spray-can was taken from an episode of the sitcom What’s Happening!! in which Rerun has a dance-off with a guy named Disco Dan (how simultaneously cool and uncool is that!).
Despite their local popularity, Go-Go musicians struggled to be recognized by major labels as more than a regional fad. What’s more, the scene was scapegoated by the city’s police force because of crimes committed by some of the crews. The turning point came with the introduction of crack cocaine. Many of the people around Dan became addicts, dealers, or both. Crew rumbles turned into murderous turf wars, and a scene that had been about fun became all about making a fast buck and spending it on flash gear. Dan had more than his share of troubles (his mother sent him to a “crisis facility” in Texas for a while), but he never became a druggie (“I never had the desire to get high,” he says). He persevered in writing his handle, doing so anonymously until a 1990 Washington Post article revealed his name.
With an eclectic visual style that includes animation, and narration spoken with conviction by D.C. native Henry Rollins, The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan tries to accentuate the positive. It’s kind of disconcerting that Dan isn’t the loquacious “character” that one expects a documentary subject to be. He’s a friendly presence, but sometimes feels like just one of a crowd. The filmmakers mention his mental problems, and his sometime preference for being homeless, but it’s pretty vague. Not that we need a diagnosis, but some text at the end states that his mental health has “further deteriorated,” which leaves us confused as well as alarmed. Oh well, it’s nice to know that he’s still around, admired by a new generation of graffiti artists. Cool “Disco” Dan abides.