Larry Levan is best remembered for his flamboyant youth, mastery of crowd control and incomparable musical creativity as the man behind the legendary Paradise Garage. But it's David Mancuso who emerges as the real hero in Josell Ramos' feature documentary Maestro, an awkward and self-conscious study of dance music's roots. Mancuso's vision-of private dance parties reminiscent of the Harlem rent parties of the '20s and '30s-led him to open his Soho loft to all walks of life in the name of social progress. While the Garage ('76 to '87) gained the notoriety, it was Mancuso's loft parties at 647 Broadway ('70 to '74) and 99 Prince St. ('74 to '85) that kick-started the movement.
There's no real storyline in Maestro-just a series of jumps that are so sporadic it's not always clear if it's 1972 or '87, or if interviewees are talking about the Garage, the Gallery or the Loft when arguing who had the best sound system or most devoted crowd. Celebrity DJs like "Little" Louie Vega, Danny Tenaglia, Derrick May and Frankie Knuckles make cameos but never link their big-time status to the original maestros.
The rare footage of Mancuso's Loft parties or the Paradise Garage before it closed in '87 never really captures the loyal underground following that made the dance parties what they were: an oasis from the moral majority, where fans were willingly led on a musical journey beyond their control.
The strongest sequence is unfortunately one of garage music's lowest points. A somber and saddened Francois K remembers the regular announcements made at the Garage warning clubbers that the combination of drug-taking and unprotected sex was a surefire way to get an unnamed disease-but no one gave a damn until it was too late. The shot that follows is grainy footage of a 29-year-old Keith Haring, his chalk-outline paintings decorating the walls around him, dancing the night away at the Garage, seemingly without a care in the world.