Ramon Fernandez’s Glory Daze: The Life And Times Of Michael Alig is a weird, dark little number…like its subject

The crime

“King of the Club Kids” Michael Alig got in an argument with his friend-slash-dealer-slash-hanger-on Andre “Angel” Melendez on St. Patrick’s Day, 1996. Melendez attacked Alig, Alig’s friend Robert “Freeze” Riggs came to his defense, and the next thing they both know, Melendez is rotting in the tub in a cocktail of ice and Drano and an era of NYC nightlife is crashing down around everyone.

The story

I lived in Manhattan when the Melendez murder went down, and for me, Glory Daze is like a yearbook of what it was like to be in the city at that time, to witness the end of its transition from burned out Warriors-scape to orderly tourist attraction, when my friends and I went out late and stayed out later and almost nobody had internet at home. We weren’t into that club/rave/E scene, really — occasionally a friend would know a guy who slept with a guy who knew a doorman, and we could get into Twilo at like 7 PM on a Sunday, before the “real” clubbers got there; we went to Squeezebox a lot — but I use the word “yearbook” advisedly. If Manhattan was like a school, Alig and his club kids were the cool theater crowd who spent the entire school day in the bathrooms smoking and piercing each other’s ears.

It also feels in retrospect like the time when “famous for being famous” began, that Alig and his painted coterie fidgeting on the set of Donahue and trying to explain their fake-it-till-you-make-it charisma to the olds and squares begat Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, and Fernandez, who’s directing his first feature, does an outstanding job collaging a time machine back to the late ’80s and early ’90s. He gets eeeeeveryone to talk to him — Michael Musto, James St. James, lawyers, promoters — and furnishes an account of the crime from Alig himself, who in his middle age has started to resemble Joshua Malina. Two thirds of the way through the film, Alig is released from prison and must learn to navigate a very different city and world (…smartphones) than the one he left, but as he and St. James take a nostalgia tour of their old haunts and contemplate the waterfront where Alig and Riggs disposed of Melendez’s dismembered body, you might wonder whether Alig is all that different. Does his compulsive drive towards the very center of attention allow any genuine remorse, or just a facsimile to avoid censure? When he breaks down in a talking-head interview, is it because he’s truly sorry for the havoc he wreaked, the life he took? Or is he just overwhelmed by having to start over?

I can’t say, and Glory Daze smartly doesn’t take a position; at times it can feel like the film is a bit too taken with, for instance, Patricia Fields’s claims that the club kids were the vanguard of a new downtown creativity, the heirs to Warhol’s Superstars, but at the same time, letting assertions like that (and Alig’s too-chatty account of the murder and body disposal) speak for themselves is the smartest commentary a documentary on this subject could provide. It’s a bit awkwardly structured — Alig’s return to the world seems like it should come either earlier in the film or later — and sometimes the shot composition is strained, but it’s leagues better than Party Monster: The Shockumentary and an expert time capsule of the 212 at that time.

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