Tonight, Judge Brett Cullum's gonna party like it's 1999, only with some musty old pop tunes from the '80s.
Till Death do they party!
Party Monster is the true story of Club Kid Michael Alig and his rise and fall from NYC circuit party fame. Michael moved to the Big Apple from the Midwest to reinvigorate the defunct post-Studio 54 nightlife scene in the late '80s and early '90s. His trademarks were wild parties at Limelight (dubbed Disco 2000), where people danced in gory blood-soaked dresses, often around a man in a chicken suit. He also held impromptu drug-fueled social gatherings at subway stations and in the back of 18-wheelers. (Hey, I'm just reporting what happened.)
The whole scene imploded when Michael killed a drug dealer, then bragged about it on television. The story dominated New York papers, became a best-selling novel by scene participant James St. James, and was the subject of a 1998 cable TV documentary called Party Monster: The Shockumentary. In 2003, the makers of the documentary decided to make a theatrical film out of the same material, and thus Party Monster the movie was born. Throw in the awesome stunt-casting of Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone), Seth Green (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Austin Powers films), Wilmer Valderrama (That '70s Show), and Marilyn Manson…and you have a party!
Facts of the Case
Party Monster is based on a variety of sources, including the original documentary directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato produced for Cinemax in 1998. This fictionalized version chronicles the friendship of Michael Alig with James St. James, and shows the rise and fall of Alig's career as king of New York nightlife. And, of course, the film deals with the hideous murder of Angel, a drug dealer and friend of Alig's who was beaten with a hammer, his body injected with Drano, then cut up and set adrift in boxes in a nearby river. Alig was arrested after he bragged about the homicide on a cable access show. At the time, many in the scene thought he was just being precocious.
Party Monster begins with a scene taken straight from the documentary—James St. James (Seth Green) being interviewed poolside. We are shown glimpses of the crime, and then return to the genesis of Alig (Macaulay Culkin) and St. James's relationship. We see Alig's rise as a party promoter at Limelight. All of the characters assemble around the parties, and the drugs start flowing. Alig becomes more and more of an addict, and he uses his status and friends to fuel his addiction. His sexuality becomes fluid as he escapes from a doomed liaison with Keoki (Wilmer Valderrama) into a doomed partnership with Gitsie (Chloë Sevigny). The murder scene is graphically rendered in the third act as the movie spirals into darkness.
I knew the scene Alig created, and attended some Club Kid events when they were all the rage in the early '90s. The movie is at a disadvantage from the word "go," because the energy of those parties is impossible to recreate on celluloid—not to mention the fact that showing some of the freakier real-life pranks and stunts Alig pulled would condemn the film to an NC-17 rating. Instead, Party Monster concentrates on the relationships between Michael and his friends, offering only glimpses inside the parties themselves. The movie is searching for answers as to why this likeable sociopath would turn to murder, and uncomfortably suggests the reasons were simply ego and addiction out of control.
Macaulay Culkin gives a strong performance as Alig, and makes the character both likeable and seriously narcissistic—a man whose fatal flaw was that he believed he was above morality. Seth Green proves his ability to carry a movie by creating James St. James. He's a little more femme than the real James, but he nimbly captures the sweetness coupled with caustic wit. Both actors give brave performances that should have earned them a lot more credit than they received. They both watched endless tapes of their real-life counterparts, and locked into their world quite effectively. It's disturbing, though, to see the Home Alone kid and a favorite Buffy character turn themselves into drug-addled queens.
Together Culkin and Green carry the movie, with strong support from Wilmer Valderrama as Superstar Deejay Keoki, Chloë Sevigny as Gitsie, and Marilyn Manson as the infamous drag queen Christina. Dylan McDermott, Mia Kirshner, Natasha Lyonne, and Diana Scarwid round out the strong cast. They are all game to take on a fabulous and horrifying romp into a world soaked with glitter, drugs, and blood. Get ready, though, because these people lived life to the extreme and had huge affectations. Some viewers will think the actors are overdoing it, but they are not. This was a flamboyant scene full of over-the-top characters, which this film captures perfectly.
The same can't be said for the soundtrack, which leans towards pop songs of the '80s—wildly inappropriate given that Disco 2000 was all about the techno. I seriously doubt that "Two of Hearts" by Stacey Q or any Dead or Alive song ever hit the turntables. Many viewers will mistakenly think the movie is set in the '80s thanks to the musical choices. One of the directors was a deejay at Danceteria back in the '80s, and he seems stuck on inserting his own personal soundtrack instead of what should have been. Heavy techno and trance would have added authenticity to the mood of the piece.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (a real-life gay couple) have directed many documentaries, The Eyes of Tammy Faye being their biggest splash so far. Party Monster represents the duo's first foray into narrative film. It meanders a bit. The two halves seem disparate, with the first 45 minutes being campy fun and frolic, and the last 45 heavy-handed, symbolic crime drama. But while Bailey and Barbato's documentary on this subject was better and clearer, this movie offers its own brand of entertainment. It's a candy-colored drug fiesta! With some murder on the side! What's not to like? Well…it could have been a little more coherent. And the fatal flaw? We are never really given a reason to care about the characters. The directors' own obsessions with Alig and St. James seem to have made them forget the audience may not know or love these characters automatically.
For an indie flick, the production really puts its money on the screen—the film looks as fabulous as its subjects. Party Monster goes all out in the style department, with costumes provided by some of the real Club Kids. (James St. James complained that all of his favorite outfits are now "hobbit-sized," because Seth Green is so much smaller than his real-life counterpart.) Marilyn Manson provided his own prosthetic boobs, butt, and blonde wig to play Christina. The directors shot the film on location in and around New York City, and you can almost smell the decadence and decay. The cinematography is dizzyingly well executed, all tight and hand-held—perfect to capture an insular world where reality hardly ever crept in.
Party Monster comes in an anamorphic transfer in the original aspect of 1.85:1, plus a full-frame version. The DVD mastering is fine. Compression artifacts pop up here and there, as do some halos, but overall the film looks better than it did in the small indie theatres in which it played almost exclusively. The flesh tones seem to be too pink at first, and then move to sickly greens and blues. This is a conceit by the filmmakers, so there's no need to adjust your set. The audio mix, a Dolby 2.0 treatment, is serviceable at best. Pity, since the party scenes could have exploited the 5.1 mode to create the chaos more effectively.
Extras there are, but they're not as impressive as they sound. Commentary consists of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato talking about the real life Club Kids, as well as the film and how it was made. There's a fluffy behind-the-scenes featurette, along with short cast interviews and a very short Michael Alig interview as well. Oh yeah, and a trailer! It's odd because the Party Monster: The Shockumentary DVD has more extras, but that's for another review. There are no chapter stops defined by the menu, and no insert to give you a roadmap. Want to find a favorite scene? Just start hitting the "Next" button and hope you run into it! That's more than a little annoying.
In the end, Party Monster is a movie that is what it is. What could have been fodder for an after-school special gets extra fancy stylish treatment with a dynamite cast. The film could have been better with more answers and more character development. Some people will find the movie disaffected and remote. If you are a fan of the NYC club scene, or of any of the actors, you will find the whole affair charming and disturbing all at once. But it's not as coherent as it should be and the extras don't add up to much. It's certainly not as fun as the real life parties it was based on. And that's the real shame.
It's also unfortunate that Angel, the victim of Alig's horrendous crime, is never presented as a real person. The movie falls victim to what I call the "monster complex.": When you see a film about a murder, and you only know the person who committed the crime, the victims become trivial. In the end, the movie is almost as shallow as Michael Alig…but that may be the point.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some people will not find this topic interesting. The fact is this was a scene full of drugs, and in the end, drugs are probably why the murder happened. I can't say there is any mystery here, or even anything more compelling than a group of kids who produced disturbing parties. It's a well-crafted movie, but the low-tech original documentary seemed to have more punch.
Nothing can compare with James St. James's personal account in his book Disco Bloodbath. You want the whole story? Go there!
Despite any flaws, I enjoyed Party Monster. The acting in it is top-notch. It's certainly a worthwhile movie that should speak to Club Kids far and wide—a sort of updated Less Than Zero. Stylish and vapid were never so much fun. Special kudos to the entire cast for strong performances, especially Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green. Culkin has cut his Home Alone cords quite nicely here, and Seth Green proves he's a hell of a lot more than Scott Evil. And did I mention that Marilyn Manson is brilliant as Christina? No, really…I just recommended a DVD for a Marilyn Manson performance.
This is a good movie for people who dig the avant-garde, such as your gay Goth friends! Maybe it's not an accessible story for most audiences, but it is proof positive that truth is always stranger than fiction.
Party Monster is free to go…bloody drag, bad '80s music and all—at least until Michael Alig is free (which could be in 2006 if he makes parole!). Fox DVD delivers a nice package for fans of the movie. But next time, can we get some chapter descriptions, please?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
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