Review: Studio 54

I was never a fan of disco, and you’d have had to drag me kicking and screaming to any club in New York when I lived there, so I was surprised by how much I liked this documentary about the club that defined the era. Studio 54 had closed just a couple of years before I moved to New York, but it was still held up as the club to which all others aspired. This documentary takes you from its inception to its demise, which was surprisingly less than 3 years. But it was a hell of a ride!

It all came about when college buddies and fellow Brooklynites Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager took a falling apart opera house on the gritty west side and decided to create a club the likes of which no one had every seen. The hottest discos at the time were gay clubs, and they wanted to take that energy and go even further. And they did just that. The club was designed and built by theater people because the regular contractors wouldn’t work for them. And that theatricality was a huge hit. Then, when they were overrun with customers, they began to pick and choose who could come in, making it a place for celebrities and a heavily curated clientele. And Rubell and Schrager found themselves at the center of the most exciting place on earth.

Schrager was the introvert who kept things going from behinds the scenes, but Rubell was a party animal who loved to talk about his success, and one of his quips probably began their downfall. When he boasted in an interview that “only the mafia does better” than Studio 54, the IRS raided the place and found that they’d been skimming millions. They were both found guilty of tax fraud and went to jail for a couple of years. Even their lawyer Roy Cohn couldn’t save them. But they continued creating theatrical clubs when they got out and were at the forefront of the boutique hotel movement. Rubell died of AIDS in 1989 and Schrager is now the head of an international hotel empire.

The film relies heavily on interviews with Schrager and he is definitely an articulate guide to a crazy story. The film directed by Matt Tyrnauer (Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Valentino: The Last Emperor) does a great job of putting you right in the center of the club and the vibe and the draw. Not that I’d have like to be there, but being a fly on the wall is exciting. It’s a dizzying look at a particular place and time, just before Reagan and AIDS, when the kind of hedonism Studio 54 offered was possible. I highly recommend it.

[Mainstream Chick’s take: I’d certainly heard of Studio 54 in the 1970s and beyond, but most of my knowledge about the nightclub/disco scene was borne out of repeat viewings of ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ The documentary does a good job explaining and exploring the cultural significance the place held for the relatively brief time that it existed. Music, dancing, drugs, sex, privilege, excess, free love… Studio 54 was an epicenter. The first half of the documentary is searing with energy, much like the club itself. But the pacing takes a significant hit as the narrative turns to the legal woes of the club’s owners and the ultimate demise of Studio 54. Overall, a decent doc for anyone intrigued by the subject matter. -hb]

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