I first watched Party Monster a couple of years ago, when once-infamous club promoterMichael Alig was released from prison, where he served 17 years for brutally murdering his drug dealer. The 2003 biopic, based on James St James’ memoir, “Disco Bloodbath”, flew under the radar during its initial release. But the film’s subject, “Club Kids” of ’90s Manhattan, once commanded TV screens across the country.
Since my first viewing of Party Monster, I have developed a minor obsession with underground club culture and am convinced that the film is just as relevant in 2016. Today, the need for safe spaces and occasional escapism is at an all-time high, as our society awakens to its deeply rooted discrimination toward marginalized groups. Party Monster offers lessons on the importance of self-acceptance, self-expression, and how to live for the moment.
Needless to say, Party Monster also shows us the downside of the underground club world. This film, in part, serves as fair warning to anyone chasing the high life, as what begins as innocent fun takes a dark and twisted turn.
A Brief History of Club Culture
Although Michael Alig was the original “Club Kid,” the clubbing scene began long before his time. Young socialites have flocked to underground dance parties since the 1920s, with the formation of speakeasies in Prohibition-era America. And in the UK, nightclubs existed as early as 1912, with the opening of Frida Strindberg’s The Cave of the Golden Calf.
In the book “Club Kids: From Speakeasies to Boomboxes and Beyond“, the early lure of nightclubs is described as an escape from the monotony of desolate rural (or suburban) life. People were excited by the anonymity, freedom of expression and poetic darkness that surrounded urban night-life. Plus, alcohol and drugs (especially cocaine) were plentiful during a dry period, and the dancing didn’t end until dawn.
Once the late ’80s rolled around, raves took over the party scene in NYC. Here’s where the Club Kids came in to play. The same pleasure-seeking behavior that drove flapper girls to speakeasies brought young people of all backgrounds to the electronic music-fueled world of the underground club scene. It became a world of “shared bodies, ecstatic flesh and alternative communities, who seize the cover of night and turn the darkness into their playground,” as stated in Club Kids.
“One Big Party that Never Ends”
Alig, played Macaulay Culkin in the film, was a midwestern transplant with big dreams. As he declares in his opening monologue, “One day I realized, I didn’t want to be like all the dreariesand normies. I wanted to create a world full of color, where everyone could play. One big party, that never ends.”
Party Monster unabashedly exposes its subject’s hedonism, maintaining colorful and loud to its core. Seth Green, as fellow Club Kid James St. James, embodies his most playful and absurd character yet (second only to his role as a horny teenager in Can’t Hardly Wait). The film follows a mockumentary style that allows Culkin and Green to address the audience like we were sitting in the room with them.
We watch their mentor-protégé dynamic morph into a twisted, but genuine, friendship. We also see the pair partake in elicit drugs – everything from coke and ecstasy to heroin – and throw illegal parties in donut shops.
But most of all, we get to watch Macaulay Culkin prance around in heels, wearing over-the-top costumes and theatrical makeup. And maybe that’s enough reason for Party Monster’s cult status. (It’s worth noting that a real-life documentary on Michael Alig exists, though it is ten times as frightening as the 2003 Party Monster.)
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Alig’s inevitable crash arrives in the second half of the film, with increasingly shocking party scenes, hard drugs and trashed hotel rooms. Not to mention the heinous manslaughter of Angel Melendez, fellow club-goer and drug dealer. Writer/directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato certainly don’t hold back when it comes to their blatant, at times almost comical, portrayal of murder and addiction.
“I don’t do, I just am.”
In one scene, the Club Kids are featured on a talk show. Everyone is drenched in glitter and body paint, and James St James is dressed as a literal troll. When the host asks James what he does for a living, he replies, “I don’t do, I just am.”
In my opinion, his statement is both an indicator of upper-class privilege and a nod toward the “come as you are” attitude of underground club-culture. Yes, James is definitely a trust-fund baby who can afford to party in Manhattan without a real job. But I think his statement also says that he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone.
As the film progresses and Michael begins recruiting Club Kids from around the country, he attracts eccentric teens who – like himself and James – have been socially outcast by their peers. The “Kids” (one of whom is played by Chloë Sevigny) run to him looking for new, glamorous identities. Michael frees the Kids from their closed-minded backgrounds, nurturing their creative expression (before turning them on to drugs, of course).
Film as Counterculture
All theory aside, Party Monster feels a bit like a wannabe John Waters film. Its kitschy, B-movie aesthetic speaks to avant-garde filmmakers who made movies with a group of their friends on a $1000 budget. But the irony here is that Party Monster had a budget of $5 million and was produced by Hollywood big-wigs.
The film made $742,898 in gross profits but achieved its cult classic status because of its so-bad-it’s-good quality as well as appearances from cultural icons like Chloë Sevigny, Marilyn Manson and, of course, Macaulay Culkin.
The DIY directing style of Party Monster, despite its Hollywood construction, is representative of counterculture in general. I don’t think the film would have made sense had it been shot more traditionally, without the staged acting or low camera resolution. The Club Kids did not conform to the mainstream, so why wouldn’t a film about them be equally eccentric? The relationship here between mainstream (Hollywood) media and the subject of counterculture is rather interesting, though.
Party Monster takes camp to a level that probably should never have existed, though I’m glad it does. At times cringeworthy, the film embodies the frightening-yet-fascinating counterculture of the 90’s club scene. We are dragged into a world created by outrageous characters who tell us that it’s okay to be different. The risqué parties, the extravagance, the costumes – these were all tools used to build a space where people could be free.
But as the film continues and history unfolds, we can see this idealism wearing off. It’s hard not to be a little disappointed in Party Monster as a film, because the story it tells is a rather disheartening one. That being said, Club Kids were – and are – a significant piece of subculture history, and one that deserves some notice.
Luckily, if nothing else, Party Monster will definitely demand your attention.