Recently, a random conversation with OC Weekly proofreader/writer Lisa Black about Patti Smith snowballed into me recommending to her this old VH1 channel documentary called NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell. Recalling how much I loved it when it first aired (when VH1 still had interesting and unique music-centric programming), I was pleased to find it still up and available on Youtube where it’s since made its home.
So I’m recommending it this week for Sweet Streams. NY77 details New York in 1977: a time, place, and as this doc illustrates, a state of mind. Crime and violence in the streets were at an all-time high, not to mention the Son of Sam serial killer was running rampant that year; mass poverty, drug abuse, unemployment, underserved communities and schools, blackouts, mayoral elections, a summer heatwave and general malaise was in the air.
And yet, it was the most culturally explosive year in New York city. Hip hop and punk emerged during this time; the nightlife scene was bigger and sexier than ever at Studio 54 and at swinger’s clubs like Plato’s Retreat; graffiti artists took to the underground subways and street art was born; CBGB’s was bubbling with energy and frequently hosted interesting new talents like the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie. The variety of interviewees is spectacular too: guests include Ed Koch, Chris Stein (from Blondie), Gloria Gaynor, Frankie Knuckles (RIP), CBGB’s founder Hilly Kristal, Annie Sprinkle, Legs McNeil, Geraldo Rivera, Tommy Ramone, Afrika Bambataa, KRS-One and other luminaries who survived that bleak chapter in New York’s recent history.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what else makes NY77 so amazing: the visuals. Every shot that isn’t a talking head interview pulsates with the most vibrant, colorful energy, making regular archival black and white photos come alive and making great use out of old footage and After Effects to help tell each story. Seriously, I dare you to try to just watch five minutes and not get lured in.
You can’t, and shouldn’t; this is a doc to make time for to fully enjoy unfettered. So sit back and watch New York burn, just to see the beautiful phoenix that emerged from its ashes.
NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell is available to stream on Youtube.