Who Should Play Sylvester in the Inevitable Biopic of the Disco Queen?

The creative team behind a new Sylvester doc have some suggestions.

In honor of Pride Month, Amazon Music has released Love Me Like You Should: The Brave and Bold Sylvester, a new mini-documentary about the trailblazing queen of disco. The short features interviews with famous faces like Martha Wash and Billy Porter, along with rare photos and video clips of the singer.

Director Lauren Tabak and the doc’s writer/consulting producer Barry Walters (author of the forthcoming book Mighty Real: The Music That Built LGBTQ America) spoke with NewNowNext about how COVID-19 affected the making of the documentary, how they found those Sylvester rarities, and who they think should play the disco queen in the inevitable biopic.
 

There are some amazing photos and clips in the doc, what was the research process like for finding those?

Lauren: The research process was a team effort between the folks at Amazon Music, the writer, Barry Walters, and myself. We started with a few primary contacts which sprouted this rapidly growing shoot that seemed to unfurl new tendrils at every moment. I had folks sending me Facebook posts and Instagram stories at all hours, suggesting names to research, numbers to call, rumored never-before-seen recordings to ferret out. I can only imagine what we would have uncovered had we not been prohibited from exploring (because of the COVID-19 pandemic) any of the physical archives at the San Francisco Public Library, GLBT Historical Society, and MoPD. Sylvester’s Bay Area roots run deep!

Barry: As Lauren suggests, the uncertainty that’s built-in to making a documentary was ramped way, way up by the epidemic. We couldn’t just go to the library—we could barely leave our homes! And if we found something online, there was no guarantee that we could find the right person who’d give us clearance, or even find us the original footage without time code or watermarks because all the companies who own that stuff are either shut down or barely running. We ultimately couldn’t clear “Do Ya Wanna Funk?” or Sylvester’s interview with Joan Rivers, but those are easy to hear and watch online. Instead, we’ve got some photos from Sylvester’s sister, Bernadette Baldwin, that came in just as Lauren was completing her final edit. As far as I know, the only people who’ve seen those are Sylvester’s family.

Blum/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Why do you think Sylvester’s music is still popular today?

Lauren: I would guess Sylvester’s music is still popular today for a couple of reasons—for starters most of his music is really fun to listen to, it makes you feel good, it makes you move! He’s also singing about some pretty universal themes like love and relationships that I think most people can relate to, and perhaps most importantly, there’s also his incredible talent and craftsmanship. I came across some footage (that we didn’t end up using) that really illustrated to me what a perfectionist he was. I don’t believe he stumbled upon success and longevity.

Barry: He’s the sound and look and spirit of someone who was truly free. There’s obvious pain in his voice, but also its transcendence. You can hear him and immediately know that this was what it was like to be a Black non-binary queer man of the ‘70s and ‘80s—Sylvester’s now shorthand for that. His work—particularly with synthesizer pioneer Patrick Cowley—for me represents an ideal fusion of Black American traditions and white European-inspired futurism, back when synths represented something hopeful and not dystopian. The fact that both of them died of AIDS when still at the top of their game has frozen that perfection in time. They’re our Jimi Hendrix, our Joy Division. There’s but one Sylvester.

If there was a Sylvester biopic who should play him?

Lauren: Billy Porter. I didn’t have a chance to ask him, but I suspect he’d say he’s been preparing for that role his whole life.

Barry: I agree with Lauren wholeheartedly. Billy Porter’s Pose work makes me cry. He can also turn an otherwise mindless red carpet appearance into socio-political performance art. I’m so, so grateful he shared that righteousness with us.
 

“Mighty Real” is a Pride playlist staple. Is there an underrated or overlooked Sylvester song that you love?

Lauren: I’m going to echo Terri Hinte (Sylvester’s former publicist) here when I say that Sylvester could cover any song and make it his own. These aren’t particularly overlooked or underrated (Barry actually turned me onto these!), but I think what he did with Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” are just phenomenal. I must have listened to “God Bless The Child” 100 times a day when I was editing the piece, but I think it will stay in rotation.

Barry: So many! The 12” single with “Mighty Real” on one side and “Dance (Disco Heat)” will always be a sentimental favorite because it was the first record I bought in Times Square right before I moved to New York. Others took on more meaning after I moved to San Francisco as a result of interviewing Sylvester shortly before he died in 1988. All of us have one time or another been told we’re less than others, but “Stars” flips that message around: “You are a star, and you only happen once.” It’s particularly powerful and poignant when you’re on the dancefloor with your LGBTQ peers. “Give It Up (Don’t Make Me Wait)” is more of a groove than a song, but I love the way Sylvester’s voice interacts with Jeanie Tracy; the two of them just wail. And “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight” is for me one of the sexiest records ever; it’s a reminder that longing is sometimes more sensual than consummation.

Love Me Like You Should: The Brave and Bold Sylvester is available now on Amazon Music’s YouTube.

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."
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