Some of the most enter­tain­ing bits on Blue Underground’s Midnight Blue com­pi­la­tion series are the vin­tage t.v. ads for Plato’s Retreat, main­ly because of the sales­man­ship of their founder, Larry Levenson.  He gives off an unas­sum­ing, schlub­by work­ing-class vibe as he (bad­ly) reads off cue cards in a flat, nasal Noo Yawk accent.  He doesn’t look or sound like a man who once held the keys to anyone’s sex­u­al fan­tasies… and yet he was wor­shipped as the King Of Swing on a night­ly basis from 1977 until the mid-1980’s as Plato’s became a scan­dalous­ly suc­cess­ful swinger’s des­ti­na­tion.  In short, he is the kind of acci­den­tal icon whose sto­ry demands to be told.

Levenson’s sto­ry has final­ly been told, albeit in a judi­cious­ly fil­tered style, in American Swing.  The basic out­line has a clas­sic ‘rise and fall’ ring to it.  Levenson was an aver­age joe whose sex­u­al appetite caused him to chafe under the yoke of 1960’s, fam­i­ly-ori­ent­ed American atti­tudes.  He fell in with New York’s bud­ding swinger sub­cul­ture and found his ver­sion of heav­en on earth.  He even­tu­al­ly real­ized the best way to pre­serve this lifestyle was to cre­ate a cen­tral­ized place for its prac­ti­tion­ers.  That way, he could enjoy reg­u­lar, unin­ter­rupt­ed sex with many wom­en AND get to rule over the place as a king.

Thus, Plato’s Retreat was born in 1977.  This mem­bers-only swinger’s club quick­ly became the talk of the town and, after being pub­li­cized via a voyeuris­tic press, became an inter­na­tion­al des­ti­na­tion for the sex­u­al­ly curi­ous.  Levenson ran it with the atti­tude of a Catskills hote­lier and his “c’mon, let’s have fun” approach won a steady stream of cus­tomers.  Unfortunately, all good things must end — and Levenson even­tu­al­ly would have to con­tend with jeal­ousy, mon­ey trou­bles, a pris­on sen­tence and the inevitable end of Plato’s Retreat being dealt out by a force no one saw com­ing.

American Swing is a blast while you are watch­ing it.  Documentarians Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman weave togeth­er an eas­i­ly-digest­ed nar­ra­tive from a series of talk­ing head inter­views, includ­ing Levenson’s fam­i­ly & friends, porn scen­esters like Al Goldstein and even law enforce­ment offi­cials.  The smooth­ness of the nar­ra­tive is fur­ther enhanced by well-cho­sen archive footage (includ­ing fre­quent­ly hilar­i­ous clips from Levenson’s appear­ances on Midnight Blue) and a skill­ful­ly-select­ed-and-deployed sound­track of 1970’s pop and dis­co.  It’s wit­ty, eye-open­ing and fun.

Unfortunately, holes in the nar­ra­tive pop up if you look a lit­tle close­ly at the his­tor­i­cal events.  For instance, the fact that Levenson pro­hib­it­ed gay sex between males while allow­ing it between females is nev­er addressed.  The film also breezes through the dark­er ele­ments of the Levenson sto­ry, includ­ing how a lover of his mid-1970’s lady com­pan­ion had Levenson kid­napped and beat­en and how he allowed his sons to bring teenage girls to vis­it Plato’s (one son briefly dis­cuss­es this in a delet­ed scene on the dvd).  Apparently, the film­mak­ers had a hard time get­ting Levenson’s friends and asso­ciates to talk so it is under­stand­able that they need­ed to tread care­ful­ly… but they could have brought the dif­fi­cult stuff out in oth­er ways.

Despite such omis­sions, American Swing remains an enter­tain­ing por­trait of a unique place and time in American cul­tur­al his­to­ry.  It may dodge the more dif­fi­cult ele­ments of its cho­sen sub­ject but the film does suc­ceed in con­vey­ing the unique vibe of Plato’s Retreat and what endeared it to its fans.  The full mys­tery of Larry Levenson has yet to be revealed but this will suf­fice as an open­ing salvo.  At the very least, you won’t be bored.

NOTE: the fol­low­ing clip has no nudi­ty but the talk may be Not Safe For Work: