The film was released theatrically in the United States on June 12, 1998; its DVD and video releases followed in 1999. The DVD releases eventually went out of print, and the film was widely unavailable for home video purchase until it was picked up by The Criterion Collection and released in a director-approved special edition on August 25, 2009. Along with Metropolitan and Barcelona, a print of The Last Days of Disco resides in the permanent film library of the Museum of Modern Art.
In the "very early 1980s," Alice Kinnon and Charlotte Pingress, two recent college graduates, work in a New York City publishing house as poorly paid readers. After work one night, they are able to enter an exclusive disco nightclub, where Alice is hoping to socialize with Jimmy Steinway, who works in advertising and uses the nightclub to entertain clients. Jimmy is ill-tempered because he has been barred from bringing clients to the nightclub and is eventually kicked out by his friend Des McGrath, who works as a manager at the club but whose job is in jeopardy for allowing Jimmy and his clients inside. After Jimmy leaves, Alice takes Charlotte's advice to go home with her second choice, Tom Platt. At work the following morning, Charlotte and Alice talk with other editors about how to fast-track their careers. They also decide to move in together with a third girl, Holly, as they cannot afford to pay rent on their own. Despite Alice's reluctance, the women eventually settle on a railroad apartment.
Returning to the club, Alice is upset to learn that Charlotte has designs on Jimmy. She is further upset when Tom tells her that when he slept with her, he had a long-term girlfriend he was separated from and his one-night stand with Alice convinced him to return to her. Des then begins to pursue Alice.
At work, Alice decides to pursue the publication of a book on Buddhism, written by the Dalai Lama's brother, that Charlotte had previously recommended rejecting, and Alice gains the editors' respect. It is discovered that the author is not in fact the Dalai Lama's brother, but Alice maintains the book is one of the best she's ever read. Meanwhile, Charlotte, now dating Jimmy, is openly insecure about Jimmy and Alice's apparent friendliness.
At the club, in front of a group of various friends, Charlotte loudly announces that Alice has gonorrhea, after figuring it out when Alice refuses to drink. Charlotte later apologizes to Alice but tells her not to be embarrassed, as it will make men think of her as more accessible. In fact, after learning this, Des does become more interested in being with Alice, and they start dating casually.
Alice has dinner with Tom to confront him about giving her gonorrhea. He initially denies it, arguing she could have contracted it from someone else, but Alice tells him he was her first sexual partner. He then admits he also gave her herpes.
Meanwhile, Josh Neff, a D.A. and friend of Jimmy's who also frequently attends the club, asks Alice to lunch to pitch a book to her. At lunch, he confesses he is interested not in writing a book but in Alice. Alice and Josh go on a real date, and he tells her he is on medication for manic depression. Upon returning home from the date, Alice discovers Charlotte being taken away in an ambulance after a miscarriage and being told by Jimmy that he is moving to Barcelona. At the hospital, Charlotte asks Alice if Jimmy ever expressed interest in being with her; when Alice admits that he did, Charlotte reacts with tears and tells her she will be moving out.
The nightclub is raided by the police for tax fraud, and Des tries to run away despite Josh's promise to protect him, believing that Josh's interest in Alice will cause him to act unfairly. They later discover that even before the club was raided by the police, disco records were no longer selling and attendance was down.
Alice and Charlotte learn that their employer has merged with a larger publishing house and that layoffs are to be expected. Some time later, Charlotte, Josh, and Des are seen leaving the unemployment office. Josh tells the group that he is going to Lutèce for lunch, treated by Alice, who is celebrating her promotion (her book was published after she switched it from nonfiction to self-help). Des and Charlotte talk about how their big personalities are too much for normal personalities like Alice, Josh, and Jimmy. Des also says that pairing off monogamously detracts from their glamorous lifestyle, and Charlotte agrees.
On the subway on their way to Lutèce, Alice and Josh discuss their future prospects. As the end credits begin, they break character to dance to "Love Train", and are eventually joined by the entire subway station of passengers when they arrive at their destination.Chloë Sevigny as Alice Kinnon: One of two main characters, a quiet and passive but intelligent young woman working as a book editor in Manhattan. She and Charlotte, frequent companions, work for the same publisher and attended a prestigious college together.
Kate Beckinsale as Charlotte Pingress: The other main character, a rather narcissistic and shallow person. She constantly offers "advice" to Alice and criticizes her lack of sociability. She is outgoing but dominating of those around her.
Chris Eigeman as Des McGrath: A manager at the disco Alice and Charlotte frequent, casually dating Alice at one point. He provides comic relief in many sequences and provides much insight in conversations. He is intelligent but somewhat conniving, and has many hookups with Manhattan women, with a routine of pretending to come out as a homosexual when he has lost interest in them.
Mackenzie Astin as Jimmy Steinway: An ambitious friend of Des who works in advertising. Jimmy has to sneak his way into the disco in costume because the house owner doesn't want "those kind of people" in the club. He dates Charlotte.
Matt Keeslar as Josh Neff: An assistant district attorney who takes an interest in Alice. Upon his introduction to Alice at the disco, he is rudely interrupted by Charlotte, who pushes him away. Alice eventually begins a relationship with him, and comes to learn that he suffers from manic depressive disorder.
Robert Sean Leonard as Tom Platt: A charming, wealthy environmental lawyer with whom Alice has a one-night stand. He gained interest in Alice after meeting her at the disco but proved to not be relationship material. In her sexual encounter with him, Alice contracts both gonorrhea and herpes.
Jennifer Beals as Nina Moritz: One of Des's conquests, who falls for his "coming out" act and later discovers he was lying to rid himself of her.
Matt Ross as Dan Powers: A Harvard graduate and co-worker of Alice and Charlotte. He often criticizes the two women, who refer to him as "Departmental Dan."
Tara Subkoff as Holly: A quiet woman whose intelligence and relationship choices are questioned by Charlotte and Alice. She becomes their third roommate when they decide to move in together.
Burr Steers as Van: A worker at the disco and sort of henchman of Bernie's.
David Thornton as Bernie Rafferty: The owner of the disco and Des's boss.
Mark McKinney as Rex: The owner of Rex's bar.
George Plimpton and Anthony Haden-Guest appear as clubgoers.
Carolyn Farina appears in a brief cameo as Audrey Rouget from Metropolitan, as do her Metropolitan co-stars Bryan Leder (Fred Neff) and Dylan Hundley (Sally Fowler).
Taylor Nichols also appears in a cameo as Ted Boynton from Barcelona, along with his then-girlfriend Betty (Debbon Ayer), who inspires an unemployed Jimmy to look for work at an international firm in Barcelona.
The idea for the film reportedly came to director Stillman after filming the disco scenes in his previous film, Barcelona. Stillman, who had frequented the New York discos in the 1970s and 1980s himself, announced the project soon thereafter, and interest from a handful of film distributors and actors sprouted before the film had even been written. According to Stillman in the 2009 audio commentary for the film, various actors (many of them reportedly "big names") were interested in the project from its original conception; Ben Affleck was originally looking into playing the role of Des, but Stillman, who had worked with Chris Eigeman before, handed the role over to him instead. Kate Beckinsale, who was living in England at the time, mailed an audition tape to Stillman; he was immediately mesmerized and cast her in the role of Charlotte. The leading role of Alice Kinnon took the longest to cast—it originally was going to go to an unnamed European actress, but according to Stillman, she resembled co-star Kate Beckinsale "too much" and also had a non-American accent that caused complications. Winona Ryder was subsequently offered the role through her agent. The call was placed by studio executives on a Monday. The film's editor, Chris Tellefsen, who had previously worked as the editor of Kids, recommended Chloë Sevigny after seeing her performance in that film. Two days after the phone call was placed to Ryder's agent, Sevigny, who had been given the script through her agent, auditioned for the role, and won it. By the time Ryder's agent returned the call, Sevigny had already been cast.
Principal photography began on August 12, 1997, and ended on October 27, 1997. Filming took place in various New York City locations, and the structure used for the disco was Loews Landmark Theater Loew's Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, New Jersey, that was in the process of being renovated. The filmmakers had to share the location with another film production that took place there beforehand. The other production paid for the red carpeting used in the building, and the rest of the interior was designed and paid for by Stillman's crew.
The film's distributor had also pushed the filmmakers to complete the film and get it released before the Columbia Pictures disco club film 54, and it was; 54 was released in US cinemas in late August 1998, just two months after the theatrical debut of The Last Days of Disco.
Like Stillman's other films, The Last Days of Disco deals with social structure, sexual politics, and group dynamics. The relationships that bloom from the club are often expressed through long dialogue sequences, with Stillman's trademark dry humor and "sharp lines" often blurted, especially by Charlotte and Josh.
The Last Days of Disco was theatrically released on June 12, 1998 in US theaters where it grossed $277,601 on its opening weekend. It went on to make $3 million in North America. With a production budget of $8 million, the film was considered a financial failure, although it was well received by many critics. It was received better than the critically panned release 54, which dealt with the Manhattan disco Studio 54.
The Last Days of Disco received generally positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 71% based on 56 reviews, with an average rating of 6.5/10. Metacritic gives it a 76 out of 100 rating, based on 24 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars out of four and wrote, "If [F.] Scott Fitzgerald were to return to life, he would feel at home in a Whit Stillman movie. Stillman listens to how people talk, and knows what it reveals about them". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Chris Eigeman's performance: "Mr. Eigeman makes the filmmaker a perfect mouthpiece who can brood amusingly about anything, no matter how petty. Here he plumbs the psychological subtext of Lady and the Tramp". Andrew Sarris, in his review for The New York Observer, wrote, "Mr. Stillman's free ticket with the critics for the seemingly magical minimalism of Metropolitan has long since expired. In his future projects, all the charm and buoyancy in the world may not compensate for a lack of structure and bedrock reality".
Entertainment Weekly gave the film an A- grade; Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "Stillman's gang may be maturing precariously close to middle age, but it's lovely to know the important pleasures of conversation and intellectual discussion endure". In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan praised the "exceptional acting ensemble" for being "successful at capturing the brittle rituals of this specific group of genteel, well-spoken young people on the cusp of adulthood who say things like 'What I was craving was a sentient individual' and 'It's far more complicated and nuanced than that'."
The director, Whit Stillman, wrote a novelization of the film published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux under the same title, with the added subtitle "...With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards". It won the 2014 Prix Fitzgerald Award. Stillman also wrote a novelization of his 2016 film Love & Friendship.
- I Love the Nightlife - 3:01 (Alicia Bridges)
- I'm Coming Out - 5:25 (Diana Ross)
- Got to Be Real - 3:45 (Cheryl Lynn)
- Good Times - 3:45 (Chic)
- He's the Greatest Dancer - 3:34 (Sister Sledge)
- I Don't Know If It's Right - 3:48 (Evelyn "Champagne" King)
- More, More, More, Pt. 1 - 3:02 (Andrea True Connection)
- Doctor's Orders - 3:31 (Carol Douglas)
- Everybody Dance - 3:31 (Chic)
- The Love I Lost - 6:25 (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes)
- Let's All Chant - 3:05 (Michael Zager Band)
- Got to Have Loving - 8:18 (Don Ray)
- Shame - 6:34 (Evelyn "Champagne" King)
- Knock on Wood - 3:52 (Amii Stewart)
- The Oogum Boogum Song - 2:34 (Brenton Wood)
- Love Train - 3:00 (O'Jays)
- I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round) - 3:13 (La India & Nuyorican Soul)
Stillman did not direct another film until Damsels in Distress (2012).
According to Chloë Sevigny in a 2009 audio commentary track for the film, her performance in The Last Days of Disco—particularly the upbeat dance sequence finale in the subway—got the attention of director Kimberly Peirce, who cast Sevigny in Boys Don't Cry (1999). Sevigny received an Oscar nomination for her performance in that film, but said that of all the films she's made, The Last Days of Disco is the one "people come up to me about" the most.
Sevigny also stated that she became good friends on the set with co-star Tara Subkoff, with whom she remained close after shooting. The two worked together on a fashion line called Imitation of Christ in 2003, along with Scarlett Johansson.
The film was accessioned by the film library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it is sometimes screened to the public. It was last shown at the museum's Pop Rally event in August 2009, with director Stillman and star Chris Eigeman present for a question-and-answer session following the screening. Subkoff was also present during the Q & A. An after-party in celebration of the screening was advertised and held that evening as well.
The film was originally released on VHS and DVD in 1999 through Image Entertainment, but as of 2009, that edition is out of print and was very hard to find; copies available for sale online were over $100. This DVD release included the film's original theatrical trailer as the single bonus feature on the disc.
After being unavailable for home media purchase for a significant time, the film received a second release, and was added to the esteemed Criterion Collection DVD series. It was the 485th film to enter the series, and was released on August 25, 2009, in a restored version that was approved by director Stillman. Stillman's first film in his 'trilogy', Metropolitan, was also released in the Criterion series three years prior. The Criterion release of The Last Days of Disco included as supplemental materials: an audio commentary with Whit Stillman, Chloë Sevigny, and Chris Eigeman; four deleted scenes, a promotional making-of featurette, an audio recording of Stillman reading a passage from his film novelization, a still gallery with a text narrative by Stillman, and the original theatrical trailer. A liner essay by novelist David Schickler was also included as a paper insert in the package.
The cover of the DVD features an illustration by French artist Pierre Le-Tan, depicting actresses Beckinsale and Sevigny preparing themselves in the powder room before entering the disco; the painting is a replication of a scene in the film. A Blu-ray was released by Criterion on July 24, 2012.