Muscled go-go boys, outrageous drag queens, rampant flesh, tales of sexual shenanigans—it's all there, as one would expect, in a documentary about a club promoter who purportedly changed the heavily made-up face of the gay club scenes in New York City and L.A.
Club King tells the story of one Mario Diaz that, in turn, serves up a titillating slice of urban gay history.
The film follows Diaz, who has been organizing parties for 20 years and is credited by interviewees as ratcheting up the edginess of the gay party scene, as he goes about his business, in which scantily styling chiseled beefcake and firing talent and hiring them back the next day is routine.
His current life is used as a springboard to delve into how he rocked NYC's East Village in the 1990s when he opened up a raunchy gay bar called—enigmatically enough—The Cock. A powderkeg of radical queer performance art and sex-positivity, the club, posited outside the gay mainstream, emerged against the backdrop of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani's efforts to Disneyfy the city by shutting down porn venues, queer-sex spots, and strip joints.
In reaction, Diaz delved into and embraced "filth"; everything from pissing contests to a dyke performer pulling a turkey leg out of her vagina (!) took place in an era, one interviewee points out, before ubiquitous cameras on cellphones encroached upon peoples' unhibited revelry.
The gay nightlife history lesson gives way to Diaz's backstory, which consists of a tumultuous family life involving a substance-abusing mother, a homophobic father he remains devoted to, a divorce and custody battle, foster homes, a bipolar sister, and Mario running away from home as a Seattle teenager.
His life story is told less as a play for sympathy than a way to explain his drive to excel. It also indirectly explains his reluctance to have a boyfriend, in spite of emotional longing that others seem to recognize more than he does. There's little talk about how he remains so disciplined while navigating a world full of substances, and as much as there is talk about sex on the scene, don't expect many details about that in his own personal life.
Then again, the price he has paid for his late-night, hard-partying, hedonistic, unpredictable, and varied lifestyle, juggling gigs as a dancer and actor, becomes evident more on an emotional level than anything physical. For instance, as he looks to the future, there's a touch of melancholy as he muses about being a 50-year-old club promoter in a matter of years.
All that said, the film, sprinkled with cheeky humour, is an intriguing portrait of both a man and a world that learned not only how to survive but galvanize a disparate community—with sparkle, of course.
Club King plays at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival on Saturday (August 16) at 9:30 p.m. at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.