Angels with dirty faces

A new film about a notorious club-land murder has divided audiences. Leslie Felperin finds the cast and crew upbeat
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The Independent Culture

"It's a morality tale, immorally told," is how Fenton Bailey describes Party Monster, the feature film he and Randy Barbato co-directed about the rise and fall of the New York City-based club promoter Michael Alig, the one-time king of the Club Kids, a legendary NYC clique notorious for its outrageous fashion and voracious drug consumption. The party came to an end when Alig was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to 20 years for the manslaughter of drug dealer Andre "Angel" Melendez, a killing prompted by a drug-fuelled argument over money. Controversial on just about every level - ethical, cinematic, sartorial - the film is destined to divide viewers on its release next week here in the UK, just as it has critics and festival-goers ever since it debuted at the Sundance last January. Released last month in the United States, its performance has been underwhelming, but European viewers may take to its spandex-and-spangle-clad charms more easily.

If you're the sort of person who loves early John Waters movies (think Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble) or the more decadent Paul Morrissey-Andy Warhol films (Trash, Flesh), then Party Monster, with its unabashed hedonism, insouciance and tart one-liners, is the movie for you. Adapted from the eminently readable memoir, Disco Bloodbath, written by Alig's best friend and sometime rival, James St James, the feature was spun off from an acclaimed documentary (also called Party Monster) that Bailey and Barbato made in 1998.

Party Monster Mark II features Macaulay Culkin trashing the last, tattered vestiges of his wholesome, Home Alone image by playing Alig - equipped with jockstraps, body paint, attitude, crack pipes and syringes - and robustly supported by the gamin Seth Green (Scott Evil in the Austin Powers films) as St James. Throw in Marilyn Manson, Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne in supporting parts, and you have yourself a cult film in the making.

"Being with Michael Alig was not much fun," St James explains, recollecting his old party-partner's penchant for pissing on people - and not in the figurative sense. "But talking about him the next day was always great." Six years on, after it all went tits up, St James is very good indeed at talking about Alig and his own exploits in his clubbing days. A guiding influence on the movie, the intoxicating raconteur is very happy with the way it turned out, although "ultimately this is not what I want to be mythologised for," he explains. "I do not want to go down in history as Michael Alig's sidekick. I sort of feel like in the movie all I do is play Ethel to his Lucy and go, 'Oh Lucy! What are you doing now!' I was probably a lot more fun than the movie portrays me and there were a lot more escapades that I was a part of. But I think they use me to be the moral compass of the story."

The Southern-born 37-year-old's blithe, la-di-da delivery works perhaps as a kind of verbal drag, disguising a more serious soul than the bitch-perfect delivery suggests. He can sound callous when discussing the murdered Angel, but as the film explains, it was partly St James coming forward to the press that led to the eventual arrest of Alig and the other participant in the killing, another drug dealer named Freeze (aka Robert Riggs), who struck the first blow with a hammer. Alig subsequently injected Angel with Drano, smothered him with a pillow (asphyxiation was the actual cause of death) and, a week later, hacked up the body and threw it in the river.

St James is still friends with Alig and corresponds regularly with him. "But if he hadn't been arrested I don't think we would have stayed friends," he explains. "He's where he should be now. I wasn't shocked that [the murder] happened because Michael always takes things to extremes. When it happened, it wasn't that I couldn't believe it, it was more that I couldn't believe he let it get that far. And when he said it was Angel he'd killed I said, 'Michael, I can't believe you threw it all away, the whole club scene - on Angel!' [Angel] was the most inconsequential person. If you're going to murder someone, go murder Bianca Jagger - or even me!"

The way that Seth Green, 29, channels St James for the film is all the more miraculous if you compare them in the flesh. St James is a strapping six feet from his feet to his shaved head. The only obvious signs of his drag tendencies are smudges of eyeliner and chipped nail polish that offset his sharp black suits. The earnest but impressively articulate and emphatically straight Green is all of 5ft 4in, although the platforms seemingly never off his feet in the film make him look taller. St James provided many of his old outfits for the costumes. "I got them back after they'd been altered for Seth, so now I have a lot of hobbit clothes," he cracks. Many of his other complex assemblies of feather and Lycra adorn the extras in the film.

"I love Seth's portrayal of me, I think it's hysterical," he gushes. "I've been told he has my mannerisms and my laugh down cold. Seth's is more of an impersonation because he got to know me better. I think Macaulay's performance is more an interpretation, because although he did spend time with Michael by visiting him in prison, it probably wasn't enough to really soak up the mannerisms. Mac does what he does best, because he has that angelic choirboy face, when you know in his head he's having anal sex and smoking crack and thinking some really nasty thoughts. But finding someone to play me wouldn't be all that hard. Seth has great legs, a nice ass and looks great in a wig, and that's all it takes as far as I'm concerned."

The respect between him and St James is mutual. "I felt a pressure to represent James accurately because I became such a fan and I wanted people to see him the way I saw him," Green explains. "I think he's so relevant and talented and so much fun to be around. And so complicated! I didn't want him to be mono-dimensional."

Green basically steals the movie, but Culkin doesn't seem to mind. Party Monster is his first film gig since Richie Rich in 1994. At one point, he didn't ever want to go back to making movies, especially following a well-publicised falling out with his manager father. By sheer coincidence, he's mentioned several times in Disco Bloodbath as an icon of the times. When he was offered the part, he went for it because: "It seemed to me like a way to rediscover the joy I felt in making movies when I was seven or eight."

"I'm not gay - sorry boys! - and I'm very secure about my sexuality," explains Culkin cheerfully. "But the film was a challenge, and you always want as an actor to do something that's different from what you really are. Plus, this was down-and-dirty film-making. There were no trailers. We did it in 25 days, 20-hour-a-day shoots, six scenes a day, two hours of make-up. Some of the outfits alone would take an hour to get into because they would have to wrap gauze around me or something crazy like that."

What with the clothes, and the one-liners, the film's mood is fun, fun, fun; but the ending is anything but. "You know who our film turns on in the end?" asks director Bailey. "The audience. Michael's bratty behaviour was encouraged and escalated because of all the attention he got, not just from his own coterie of Club Kids, but talk-show audiences, magazine writers and everyone. And the same thing happens in the film: you're going along and loving it and loving Mac and then suddenly it gets really icky. And as an audience member you can't really stand back and judge because you're implicated. You've just been having a great time at this party and suddenly, oh look what happened. You feel slightly responsible for that."

It's a very 1990s, anxious, fin-de-siècle note the film strikes. Even though its story ends only six years ago, it still seems like a period drama, faintly dusted with time. "I don't think the Club Kids would have been mythologised without that spectacular end to it," speculates St James. "It's pushed it into the realm of myth alongside the Factory and Studio 54. At the time it happened, at the end of the Nineties, we were all drug addicts and such has-beens. But now, as it stands, it was a moment in New York's cultural history," a moment where the club scene learned that, in St James's words, "The lines on the road are there for a reason, and if you try to live outside the lines, it all goes wrong."

'Party Monster' is released 17 October