Thirty years ago New York City was falling apart. Social services had been cut, people couldn't find jobs, a citywide blackout resulted in widespread looting and a serial killer was confounding the police. But in the midst of this decaying metropolis, the musical and artistic toiling of a group of very resourceful individuals planted the seed for creative movements that would go on to have a far-reaching effect on popular culture. The time period is fascinatingly captured in NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, airing as part of VH1's Rock Docs series this Saturday (at 9 pm/ET). TVGuide.com spoke with Academy Award-nominated executive producer Nanette Burstein about the documentary.
TVGuide.com: Right off the bat I have to say that the amount of detail that went into NY77 makes it look as if it was meant for theatrical release.
Nanette Burstein: Thank you. When I first went into documentaries, I never wanted to do historical archival pieces, but I found that it actually can be more liberating than just filming vérité. There's so much you can do with CG and illustration. I first discovered it with The Kid Stays in the Picture [which Burstein codirected], and now I feel like I've gotten a lot more sophisticated with it.
TVGuide.com: NY77 takes a close look at the emergence of hip-hop and punk. What was unique about popular music at that time that allowed for these underground movements to spring up?
Burstein: Stadium rock was really big and it was all you heard on the radio. It seemed like music was only for those really talented musicians who played 20-minute guitar solos. So these deejays decided to make their own music by using samples of Motown and other older recordings they weren't hearing on the radio. Punk musicians went back as well, taking old rock and roll from the '50s, stuff like Chuck Berry riffs and rudimentary rock chords, and then just speeding it up.
TVGuide.com: From a social standpoint, NY77 shows how the music created a thriving community where there previously wasn't one.
Burstein: Well, the punk movement was centered at CBGB and Max's Kansas City and it was this place where people could go to create music. It wasn't just sitting around in your room. The same with hip-hop — it was about parties that involved dancing and graffiti and spinning records and rapping. It was all about the community event. It grew out of the gang mentality, but you had people like Afrika Bambaataa saying, "Instead of fighting each other with guns, let's fight each other with turntables." There was still that mentality of my crew versus your crew, but this way nobody got killed.
TVGuide.com: The mayoral race and the Son of Sam killings are also central to the film. How important was it to balance the focus on the social and political as well as the creative output?
Burstein: VH1 is a music channel, so obviously there's going to be a focus on the creative side of things and those stories, but we all felt it was very important to understand the backdrop of the city. All of these musical movements were evolving out of the underground. In the following years, they would become super-commercialized. The city of New York was having the same narrative happening. It was a very raw place and it was going to become very commercial. The Son of Sam killings also had an arch to it throughout that year. First they realized it was a serial killer that they called "The .44 Caliber Killer." Then they realized he had a name and called himself "Son of Sam." So that and the mayoral race seemed like a good framework, because they both captured the fear of the city and the need to make it a safe place to live.
TVGuide.com: Which interview subjects proved indispensable to the story?
Burstein: Well, finding Grandmaster Caz and DJ Disco Wiz ended up being a gold mine of stories. Their personal experience really brought that time to life for me in a way I'd never read about. It made it so real and so human. There are just so many great anecdotes I'd never heard before. Also, Chris Stein from Blondie was great. His sense of sarcasm about what the city is like now as opposed to what it was then really matched the way we felt.
TVGuide.com: The production design and graphics give NY77 a look and feel that really echoes the visual style of the period.
Burstein: Going into it, we knew we were going to approach it that way. We were always trying to take the style of the character of that period and do things with it that you couldn't do then. Wyeth Hansen, who was the head art director, is totally in love with this period of time and has really studied it. He used influences from the way Sesame Street productions were designed to how they would use chyrons in local news back then. So we really tried to emulate that time period, but then make it more visually dynamic, because it is 2007 and there's so much you can do now to make these things come alive.
TVGuide.com: Despite all the chaos of New York City in 1977, the film is very nostalgic about that year in the city's history.
Burstein: Yeah, the chaotic environment made for an artistically exciting time. Also, you had an economic climate that was such that young artists were given total freedom. No one was telling them what they could wear or who they should be. It's really about a time when the city was very different than what you have now.
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