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American Swing
American Swing
Actor: et al.
Director: Jon Hart;Mathew Kaufman
Genres: Documentary
NR     2009     1hr 21min

The Seventies were sexy and sleazy. At the epicenter of it all was Plato's Retreat, the controversial, first-ever swingers club. In New York's conservative Upper West Side, Plato's embraced adventurous couples who came to ...  more »


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Movie Details

Actor: et al.
Director: Jon Hart;Mathew Kaufman
Genres: Documentary
Sub-Genres: Documentary
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen - Closed-captioned,Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 04/14/2009
Original Release Date: 01/01/2008
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2008
Release Year: 2009
Run Time: 1hr 21min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 10
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English
Subtitles: Spanish

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Movie Reviews

Raw but intrigung look into the sexual revolution
Roland E. Zwick | Valencia, Ca USA | 05/24/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Anyone who ventures into "American Swing" expecting to see a documentary on Benny Goodman is in for one hell of a rude awakening - and that's putting it mildly. For the "swing," in this case, actually refers to the "wife-swapping" phenomenon that swept through middle-class suburbia in the 1970s. And no figure did more to popularize that trend than Larry Levenson - the "King of Swing" as he came to be called - whose "live sex club," Plato's Retreat, located in Manhattan`s Upper West Side, served as the epicenter for so much of the action.

Let it be stated right up front that this eye-opening documentary is not for the prudish or the easily offended, for its footage is graphic and its language raw, often akin in its look to crude 1970`s porn. It takes us straight into the heart of a scene that became famous for its flagrant nudity, its unbridled group sex, and - if the eyewitness accounts are to be believed - its really bad food (apparently, the smorgasbord that kept bringing the people in was of quite a different kind!). Directed by Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart, the film features interviews with many of the now-aging club regulars who happily regale us with tales of their personal escapades there. A number of celebrities who frequented the club, as well as certain reporters and broadcasters who covered the beat at the time are also interviewed.

"American Swing" is most interesting as a social document, showing how the "free love" ethos espoused by the hippies in the 1960's expanded into the mainstream a decade later. Suddenly, ordinary businessmen and housewives, truck drivers and longshoremen could partake in the life of the sexually liberated. In his own mind, Levenson sincerely believed that he was serving a salutary purpose with his club, providing couples who didn't want to be stuck in a monogamous relationship with a more honest alternative to "cheating."

It is not the intention of Kaufman and Hart to judge the people who took part in what Plato`s Retreat had to offer, but neither is it their intention to shy away from some of the less savory consequences that eventually overtook many of them: principally, the diminution of romance, rampant drug abuse, and the spread of disease. In fact, it was the sudden appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s that brought the decade-long love-train to a screeching halt. That, along with Levenson's own troubles with the IRS (including time spent in prison for tax evasion) and possible dealings with the mob, is what eventually brought an end to the place - and to the era of licentiousness that helped to spawn it.

So, was Levenson a trailblazing sexual revolutionary who made it possible for otherwise ordinary middle-class people to live out their wildest fantasies? Or was he an emotionally stunted individual who cast away the mores of society in a bid to fulfill his own kinky desires and make a kingdom and a name for himself in the process? To their credit, Kaufman and Hart provide no easy answer to those questions, neither for the prigs in the audience nor for the libertines.

All same for the movie itself - for even though Levenson's life ends sadly, "American Swing" does not play out like the typical cautionary tale. For, in the end, we are left to reach our own conclusions as to whether Plato's Retreat was in reality a hedonistic paradise or merely a moral cesspool - or, indeed perhaps, a little of both.

The only thing you can really do is check out "American Swing" and make that determination for yourself."
Good documentary; difficult subject
Joe Sixpack -- | Middle America | 05/26/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

""American Swing"
(Magnolia Pictures, 2008)
(NOTE: some spoilers included below)
This is an utterly compelling documentary about an amazingly seedy topic, the life and death of a popular New York sex club called Plato's Retreat, which catered to heterosexual "swingers" during the height of the disco era. It was, apparently, the equivalent to the swinger scene what Studio 54 was to the gay-socialite set, a place of immense personal liberation and shocking group debauchery. I used to think of the heyday of "wife-swapping" as being in the early and mid-1960s, but this saga took place in the musty ashes of the '60s Sexual Revolution, as the hippie era gave way to a more generalized hedonism and self-centeredness in American society. The film largely shies away from an examination of the larger changes in society at the time, sticking closely to the immediate drama of the Plato club, and indeed, it's a pretty compelling story. It's also an unsettling topic: I had no idea that straight (hetero) society had such an out-there free-sex culture, and while this is fascinating in theory, seeing it made plain (there is quite a bit of archival footage) is a little nauseating, if the truth be told.

As the story unfolded, I assumed that the advent of AIDS and HIV disease would be what would do the club in, and while it did factor in, it was actually the club's ties to organized crime that rocked its foundations: the club's owner, Larry Levinson, went to jail for nearly three years for tax evasion in the early 1980s. Amazingly, the venue survived for several years until finally being closed down by the City of New York, as the AIDS crisis intensified and it became clear that unsafe sex was unsafe no matter what sexual orientation was involved. What makes this film so watchable, though, is the parade of characters -- bouncers, clubgoers, porn stars, journalists -- who are interviewed decades later, and who speak of Plato's Retreat with both refreshing candor and sincere, unrepentant, misty-eyed nostalgia. It's a slice of American history, and a portrait of a time and culture that seems profoundly remote now. Certainly worth checking out. (Joe Sixpack, Slipcue film reviews)"
Sex and Excess
Amos Lassen | Little Rock, Arkansas | 04/27/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)

""American Swing"

Sex and Excess

Amos Lassen

In 1977 New York City was very hot. The city was going bankrupt but the nightlife was wild. Studio 54 was rocking as cocaine filled celebrity place to be seen. Downtown rock and roll was trying to destroy pop and in the basement of the Ansonia building on the upper west side, Plato's Retreat, the former Continental Bathhouse, was open to everyday couples who came to swing, swim, dance and swap. The sexual revolution was underway and Plato's Retreat became the place to be--it was the center of public sex. Up until Plato's Retreat opened, swinging sex was not spoken of--it was underground and it was the property of the good-looking and the wealthy. It cost only $35 to get into the club and everything was checked at the door. It was Disneyland without clothing. It was the utopia founded by Larry Levenson where anything was ok and it became a time capsule for a period that people wanted to forget.
"American Swing" tells it Plato Retreat's Story through interviews with some who visited there, some who worked there and members the families of both. Here is a look at America that most of us have never seen. It is a fascinating look at a time that began the way we live today and it is riveting.
"We Heterosexuals Can Enjoy That!?!?"
Jeffery Mingo | Homewood, IL USA | 04/15/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)

"If you are nostalgic for the 1970s, then you will love this from the start. This documentary was full of butterfly collars, hot pants, and gaudy makeup. If you enjoyed documentaries about Studio 54 or "Last Call at Maud's," then this is also for you.

Usually, the minority adapts things from the majority, so it's surprising when things happen the other way around. For example, the white "Wizard of Oz" came before the Black "The Wiz." "He-Man," with its male protagonist, came before "She-Ra," the female equivalent. The heterosexual "American Pie" came out before "Another Gay Movie." However, Chris Rock joked at the Oscars that the Johnny Cash film was just a white version of the Ray Charles film. Some are surprised that a Spanish-language "Betty la Fea" came before the English-language "Ugly Betty." In this documentary what stood out was that the club was for heterosexuals. Many interviewees are quoted saying, "A place for heterosexuals to do that!?", etc. It's implied in the work that Plato's Retreat was the straight version of the St. Marks Baths.

The documentary focuses upon those who loved the club and you don't hear as much from its detractors. The work promoted gender equality as wives got to have outside partners, not just husbands. Several interviewees said those not typically considered attractive could also find action at the club and not be ridiculed for their bodies. Still, even before HIV was identified, I wondered how attendees avoided STDs. How was sexual harassment handled at Plato's Retreat? In a documentary about swingers from at least five years ago, a woman stated, "Women are encouraged to explore their bisexuality here, but a man exhibiting bisexual behavior would be asked to leave." Again, Plato's Retreat was open before HIV was discovered, but I wonder if male bisexuality was accepted here as much as its female counterpart.

The documentary had both male and female interviewees. Melvin van Peebles sits for an interview here and as a younger person who mostly knows him as a political activist, it was surprising to see him speak about this pleasure dome. Viewers more familiar with his earlier days may not be as surprised. It is implied that interracial sex was accepted at the club and not just intraracial sex. Larry Levenson, the club's founder was Jewish. Many interviewees here (Ron Jeremy, Annie Sprinkle, Al Goldberg, Ed Koch, et al.) are also Jewish. New York City has a large Jewish community. There are Yiddish phrases intermingled in the statements and archives in this work. Some viewers may not notice the significant Jewish presence in this work, but those who know of Jewish culture and know names of Jewish celebrities will probably notice this clearly.

I love anything with nudity in it. However, this documentary is full of old, worn-out photos and video-tapings on bad 1980s equipment. The poor quality takes away from the nudity which often is only on the screen for just a second. There is male nudity here, but like most everything, most of the nudity is female. Cinematic theories by Laura Mulvey try to explain (and condemn?) this tendency. If you thought the 1970s were sexy, you may like the photos here, but if you thought that period was tacky, then the footage may grate on your nerves.

I am glad someone made this documentary. Since sex sells, why not let younger viewers learn about this bygone institution? This work will help viewers to ponder important topics about sexuality and sexual liberties."