Humor and horror from around the world, rampant weirdness of every conceivable sort, a disturbing and delirious brew of sex, death and rock 'n' roll -- when dealing with the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness program, all of the above is definitely de rigueur. But a documentary look at the musical phenomenon known as disc jockeying, in which a star-studded roster of talking heads competes for screen time with a whole planet full of funky, relatively normal human beings contentedly dancing the night away, breaking the boundaries of class, language and nationality by submitting themselves to the whims of a man (or woman) with two turntables and a microphone?
Yes, it's the Canadian premiere of Hang the DJ, directed in tandem by 26-year-olds Marco and Mauro La Villa -- identical twin brothers from Montreal who freely admit that before they put this particular project together, they had equally little interest in either non-fiction feature filmmaking or underground dance music.
"When I was in clubs," Mauro says during our interview at a downtown pub, "I hated dance music. Even back in 1990, when we were in Italy and you'd see these DJ names up everywhere -- everybody else would be so excited, and we were just like: 'What? This is crap. Bubblegum music.' And there is a lot of crap on the scene -- but on the other hand, there's a lot of crap in rock, man. There's a lot of crap in classical."
"Crap," Marco puts in, from the corner, "is one of the world's few constants."
"Yeah. Dance music is like a language, so it's got the same drawbacks as every other language. I mean, when you can't speak Italian, it all sounds the same, no matter what anybody's saying to you: Could be an insult, could be a compliment. But if you hear enough of it, you just sort of start tuning it in, and what do you know -- words begin to form. People say: 'What difference does it make? One DJ sounds the same as any other DJ.' But one of the points we tried to illustrate is that every DJ is different in his or her own particular way."
Going by interview footage alone, however, there's little likelihood that anyone will leave a screening of Hang the DJ with the impression that someone like the flamboyant and combative Junior Vasquez -- music producer, resident DJ at the legendary Soundfactory night club and self-proclaimed bitch diva of New York's gay underground club scene -- shares much in common with a quiet prodigy like San Francisco's hip-hop "turntablist" wizard Richard Quitevis (DJ Q-bert), who won so many Disco Mix Club world championships in a row that he's been banned from further competition.
Confirms Mauro: "Junior likes to always be at war with other DJs over turf and reputation -- it keeps him happy to know, or think, that people hate him. But Q-bert totally avoids drama -- he's more like a natural talent, this Jimi Hendrix guy who just wants to do his guitar solo, and Junior is more like a conductor, the guy who wants to control a whole orchestra and bend it to his will."
The La Villas also got a lot of cooperation from "new-school" DJ Roger Sanchez, who will accompany the film on its world tour. He's a charming and level-headed young man who named his company Narcotic Records in order to debunk the negative stereotype of all Latinos being drug dealers, and has apparently been tapped as a musical consultant for the new Star Wars trilogy.
"But we're just as excited about being able to showcase people from Canada," Marco chimes in, "like this 16-year-old guy from Montreal named A-Trak, or women like Kristine W and Miss Marilyne, or people from all over the rest of the world, like France's Cut Killer [whose skills were featured in Matthieu Kassowitz's 1997 film La Haine] and Italy's Claudio Coccoluto."
"The whole reason dance music travels so well is that dance music is for dance," explains Mauro. "There's no lyrics, no semantics, just this pulsing heartbeat rhythm. This is what cavemen used to do, man -- get together and beat a drum in 4/4 time, organize music in eighths to get your butt moving. It's a very structured, very calculated thing, and it can be applied to almost any musical format.
"Junior once did a remix of the Flintstones theme -- he did a remix of Dolly Parton, and played it for people who wouldn't know Dolly Parton if she walked up and bit them. Now Madonna and U2 are hopping on the same bandwagon. DJs have always been experts at figuring out what the public likes -- mainly 'cause they know that if you put a record on and the dancefloor jams up instead of clearing, people must like it!"
With its infectious energy and fascinating interplay of personalities, Hang the DJ has the potential to be a Stop Making Sense (director Jonathan Demme's groundbreaking concert portrait of the alternative pioneer band Talking Heads) for the late 1990s -- a fun film-going experience which also serves to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Mainstream North America to an ongoing upswing in musical evolution.
And the etymology of the title?
Mauro smiles. "It's from this song 'Panic,' by the Smiths: 'Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/IT SAYS NOTHING TO ME ABOUT MY LIFE.' So I guess the point is that with this movie, we're proving this music really does have something to say about some people's lives. It inspires so much creativity, it's like a lifestyle choice -- a whole hidden culture, waiting to be discovered and appreciated."
And the La Villas are already reaping the promotional benefits of such inspiration. Along with their world tour, there's a Hang the DJ website, a series of tie-in soundtrack CDs, "apparel" that's already in New York shops and support from corporations like Eaton's and Tommy Hilfiger -- most which is developing independently of the La Villas' influence or participation.
Says Mauro: "We made the film, and everybody else just jumped on and pitched in."
Marco nods. "But that's the way it goes. This film is, like, Indie 500 -- independent, 500 per cent."
Mauro: "So, you got enough now?"
Marco: "Beautiful. Make up the rest."