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The tale might sound familiar. A young gay man doesn’t fit into the midwestern small town where he was born and so heads east and finds a home in the downtown club scene where the creative ‘freaks’ built a utopia. Then a darkness falls and the fairytale fractures. But this one is not penned by a Hollywood screenwriter. This one is real. Michael Alig arrived in New York City in 1984, just as a new scene was about to explode and he would become its leader, King of the Club Kids.
In the vacuum created after the sudden death of artistic pioneer Andy Warhol, a self-proclaimed changing of the guard saw a rise in an expansion of his legacy, a wild free-for-all of personal expression that saw an influx of young party-goers looking for an outlet. Tribal, exotic, spreading from NCY basement clubs to mainstream television, Alig was the public face, a figure well-spoken of and also somewhat chided. But no matter what anyone thought, by the time he was headlining his Wednesday night Disco 2000 at The Limelight, a converted church on West 20th Street, he was the biggest name in the party scene. Outrageous Club Kids were everywhere. And like anything that starts good and feels good, only grew so much before it imploded.
Directed by Ramon Fernandez, Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig builds like a creature feature, telling the story of Alig like Steven Spielberg directed Jaws. For a long time, we spend time in the waters where Michael swam, getting to know the people and lifestyle he would so dominate, including those on both sides, party people and police. We learn about the “monster”, we see glimpses of the fresh-faced, scrawny young man, but he hasn’t made his real appearance. We instead meet a host of eccentric and interesting people who knew him. When Alig finally does show up, filmed from the prison he was interred at the time, he is certainly a monster, but there is a temperament to his appearance. Seen in numerous photographs and archival photographs as the build up progresses, he becomes beast of sorts, but one that garners a touch of sympathy, despite the atrocity he committed.
That atrocity is the murder of Andre “Angel” Melendez, a fellow club kid and drug dealer who became embroiled in an argument over a drug debt along with another friend of Alig’s. The circumstances of that dispute, which escalated until Angel was beaten to death with a hammer and poisoned with Drano, is documented by Alig himself, who describes in detail the horrific events and the many days after as they kept Angel’s body in a tub with ice and more Drano before ingesting a copious amount of heroin and dismembering their victim and dumping him in the Hudson River. It’s a chilling sequence and one that would seem like something from a horror movie but is in fact very real.
From there, the movie shifts from the long run of its setup and concentrates on Alig now and what the investigation, incarceration, and supposed rehabilitation have done for him. Unsurprisingly, despite the confessed actions and 17-year prison term, it is drugs that get the blanket blame for Michael’s downfall, a kid who allegedly started in the city clean and sober. He his supported by a dozens of friends and acquaintances who all appear on camera, telling their anecdotes and opinions, painting Michael in many shades of good and evil. This might be the most intriguing aspect of Fernandez’s film, it’s refusal to pick a side, carefully remaining objective. We swing from emotional stories of how connected and true to the spirit of the times Alig was to descriptions of narcissistic, abhorrent behavior and utter depravity, often framed right after each other. We are left to decide on our own what to feel, even when Alig himself confesses that a celebration dinner for his release seems wrong for someone like him, which is followed by him parading around his old stomping grounds in joyous exaltation. He opines for a time when all the cameras and movies and interviews will be over yet expresses desires for a reality show, staging an art exhibition, or selling a screenplay. The message here is dichotomous, where naturally, the creative energy that made him so successful in his past needs an outlet, but the play for privacy a fantasy, which will never be satisfied.
Alig’s story has been the focus of a number of productions, including Party Monster: The Shockumentary (1998), a mostly well-received documentary, and the better known Party Monster (2003), a fictionalized drama starring Macaulay Culkin. Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig attempts to expand on these works and provide a follow-up now that Alig has served his time. A lot has changed in the near twenty years he spent behind bars and there are those on camera who wonder if he can adapt to a more global-centered world, but it’s also a question perhaps not many watching would ask. By far, the most interesting aspects of Alig’s story is of course those early days in the clubs, and his rise to the top. That is covered in great detail, but so too is the third act, switching from history to present that follows the freed man about town, reacquiring himself to life outside of incarceration. It’s not nearly as magnetic, but does do something few documentaries do–show us what happened next rather than leave it to a postscript at the end. For as good as Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig is though, it might benefit from a trim. With a runtime closing in on two hours and fifteen minutes, it could easily shed twenty or thirty minutes and be just as compelling.
That said, Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig is a deeply fascinating examination into a lifestyle that many of us might remember but know very little about other than what the media portrayed. It humanizes many of the peripheral participants of the movement and even takes time to showcase its evolution and current standing in a city that has changed drastically in the decades since. Having been a regular in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s, I can say that while some of the darker aspects of the film that paint parts of the city so bleak feel a bit contrived, it was most definitely a different time and place from today and Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig pays respect to those who lived it without ever making them the freaks they were so often labeled.
Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig will be released on VOD, August 16. This is a pre-release review.
Director: Ramon Fernandez
Writers: Ramon Fernandez
Stars: Michael Alig, Noel Ashman, Fenton Bailey, Michael Musto, James St. James