“NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell”: Creation from NYC’s July 13-14, 1977 blackout chaos

By on July 13, 2015

Tomorrow night, PBS’s American Experience program will air a new episode, “Blackout” — about the 1977 blackout in New York City that took place on a hot and humid day of July 13, 1977 and the days that followed — and while we’re looking forward to seeing this new PBS special, it reminded us of a two-hour 2007 Emmy-nominated documentary, NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, which tells the colorful story of one helluva astonishing year in NYC history.

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Though lasting only two days, the ’77 Blackout happened at a time when NYC was virtually bankrupt, undergoing financial and political woes with seemingly no easy solutions. A bitter mayoral election was made even more bitter by the overall poverty that had gripped the city. The city had fallen into urban decay. There were too few jobs, money, police, schools, and social services. The subways were unsafe and drug use was at an all-time high. Not only that, but NYC was being plagued by rampant street crime, and the Son of Sam, New York City’s most notorious serial killer, was still on the loose.

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Two years earlier a “Fear-City” anti-tour pamphlet had come out, telling tourists to stay away from NYC, an extreme reaction to layoffs of police and firefighters, not to mention sanitation workers and cutback to other municipal services. Con Edison engineers were forced to disconnect customers to prevent a total failure of the system.

Then, on July 13, 1977, lightning struck an electrical line in Westchester County, which led to more downed lines from an overload of demand, and suddenly, the city was thrown into darkness. The police were simply not prepared for what came next; their squad cars lacked AM/FM radios to begin with, and for some, even their portable radios went down. There was citywide looting, and suddenly the Bronx was burning.

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And yet out of the chaos emerged one of the most creative times any city has ever encountered.

NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell — which originally aired on VH1 as part of their Rock Doc series — was executive produced by Academy Award nominee Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), and directed by Henry Corra, a filmmaker and Sundance Institute Fellow, best known for pioneering what he calls living cinema. His most recent feature is the Farewell to Hollywood doc, about the life and death of Reggie Nicholson.

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Out of chaos came creation, and the emergence of hip hop, punk and disco, graffiti art, and sexual liberation. From the South Bronx came hip hop. From the Lower East Side, the thrashing guitars of punk. And all over the city, a disco revolution was underway. Elaborate, finely crafted graffiti art decorated the subway cars and break-dancers shimmied in the streets. The sexual revolution was in full swing too, from Studio 54 to Plato’s Retreat — all in the pre-AIDS era.

Landscape

NY77 used never-before-seen footage with a unique and unconventional narrative approach and groundbreaking animation to help tell the story. It featured interviews with those who lived it, and lived through it, including Mayor Ed Koch, Geraldo Rivera, Jimmy Breslin, Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein, porn actress Annie Sprinkle, hip-hop pioneers KRS One, Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, punk’s Richard Hell, Tommy Ramone, Blondie’s Christ Stein, Studio 54 co-owner Ian Schrager, disco diva Gloria Gaynor, Grandmaster Caz, DJ Disco Wiz, Legs McNeil, Jellybean Benitez, Lee Quinones, and many more.

NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell nominated for an Emmy in 2008 in two categories, for Outstanding Arts and Cultural Programming, and for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Graphic Design and Art Direction, for the work done by Labour-NY‘s Wyeth Hansen (art director), and Todd Neale (designer/animator).

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Here’s a great interview we found on TVGuide.com with executive producer Nanette Burstein about the documentary, from 2007:

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 co-directed], and now I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated with it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Watch the entire film, NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, right here:

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And here’s a teaser for Tuesday night’s “American Experience: Blackout,” which will be told through those who lived it and lived through it, including first responders, journalists, shop owners, and those who worked in the Con Edison control center on West End Avenue (“Every single borough in New York City was affected by the looting, and it happened very very quickly”):

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.