In 2016, playwright Taylor Mac staged the nigh-on impossible: a one-night-only theatrical show at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn that ran for 24 hours and featured 246 songs spanning 24 decades to present an ambitious reimagining—or really, a queering—of American history.
By all accounts, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was a feat as much as a stellar spectacle. Wesley Morris at the New York Times dubbed it “one of the great experiences of my life,” the show was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and in abridged form it would go on to tour across the U.S. and Europe. Now, the marathon performance can be glimpsed in a new HBO documentary that takes us front of stage and behind the scenes.
Directed by veteran filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music dives into the craft, production, talent, and sheer stamina that went into the immersive show. It was, after all, much more than a concert. It was an extravaganza replete with costumes, cutting banter, stage design, audience participation, and the soaring sounds of a 24-piece orchestra.
As the show’s co-director Niegel Smith put it in the documentary, “it asks us to practice joy and exuberance and maximalism.”
Across the span of each performance, Mac and company offered their reinterpretation of songs ranging from “Yankee Doodle” and “Coal Black Rose” to “Stayin’ Alive” and “Gloria,” which punctuate reenacted scenes from the nation’s history—the Civil War, the Trail of Tears, white flight. The Cold War, for example, is (perhaps rightly) depicted with massive inflatable penises painted with Russian and American flags, set to an accompaniment of “Heroes.”
Make no mistake, A 24-Decade History was far from a booster for U.S. pride. Instead, the show unpacked the country’s legacy of genocide, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and war in scenes both poignant and pointed. Consider the bookending of a chapter on the AIDS epidemic with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” or that on World War I with the sardonically celebratory “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
“I wanted to make a world where people consider things, where people hang out and spend time, where people make music together, where we use our bodies to understand history,” Mac told Paris Review in 2018. “So we made a show that does all those things, where we build ourselves because of the adversity.”
That sense of snatching victory—and yes, joy—out of adversity is further borne out in the show’s fantastically eye-popping costumes, designed by Mac’s longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle, whose outfits riffed off particular periods. Dazzle is interviewed in the documentary, as are musical director Matt Ray, makeup designer Anastasia Durasova, and performers Erin Hill, Steffanie Christi’an, and Thornetta Davis, among others.
Their collective efforts, in Mac’s estimation, have the effect of building a world not as it could be, but as they want it to be.
“I want to believe that an artist’s job is to dream the culture forward,” said Mac in the film, “to look at the things that aren’t working in society and think about how they could be better.”
Below, preview an exclusive clip from the documentary.
Clip courtesy HBO.
The HBO documentary film Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History Of Popular Music debuts June 27 on HBO and streaming on Max.