As Paul Simon has said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls. Or, in the case of the mysterious Washington, D.C., graffiti artist Dan Hogg (a.k.a. Cool “Disco” Dan), just about anywhere accessible to his can of spray paint.
“The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan” is a disorganized documentary by music video director Joseph Pattisall that uses a mishmash of pop culture history, talking heads, whimsical animation, archival footage, and family photos. With mixed success, the film attempts to show how this marginalized guy became a legend through the ubiquity of his scrawled nickname.
Hogg’s story sounds like a darker version of “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” (2011), the documentary about Kevin Clash, another kid from a tough neighborhood who escaped the perils of his environment by pursuing his dreams and eventually becoming the voice of the beloved muppet. Hogg’s talent is more limited, though, and his background more fraught. A disturbed dropout and behavioral problem, he became fascinated with the District’s indigenous “Go-Go” music scene, and that inspired him to start his name-tagging in the ’80s as a way of achieving fame.
And it succeeded. Over the years his nom de plume became part of the local background, and a hip shibboleth. He was an unschooled, unself-conscious Banksy or Shepard Fairey, a phantom outlaw artist expressing the aspirations of the anonymous and disenfranchised.
Hogg didn’t venture into the white-marbled official Washington, where the names of other legends are inscribed on monuments (though it would have been interesting to see the response had he scrawled his tag on, say, the Lincoln Memorial). Instead, he ranged all over the so-called “Chocolate City” of poor, all-black neighborhoods, and Pattisall uses Hogg’s story as a sometimes shaky framework to digress into an ambitious history of this other Washington, in which a thriving cultural scene collapsed under the onslaught of crack and gang violence.
And so Hogg becomes a marginal figure in his own movie as Pattisall interviews former mayor Marion Barry, retired police officers, civil rights activists, long-in-the-tooth ex-gang members, and other assorted experts. They discuss the city’s troubled history, the evolution and decline of the music scene, and many other topics, any one of which could be the subject of its own film.
Hogg himself escaped the drugs and gang-banging of his neighborhood, but only at the cost of descending into his own private hell of mental illness and homelessness, a condition which, as the film’s epilogue reveals, continues to this day. In his interviews with Pattisall, he comes off as articulate and vulnerable, aware of his stature as an icon but not quite comprehending it. He’s a fascinating figure; maybe someone should make a movie about him.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.