“Anything could happen, and it did” is how someone describes the vibe at the fabled New York City nightclub and discotheque in documentary Studio 54... and it’s difficult to reconcile the jolt of recognition that characterization sets off in the brain — even if you were never there, even if you are too young to have ever possibly experienced it — with the fact that the venue existed for a mere 33 months in the late 1970s. The legend, nay, the mythology of Studio 54 is something that is a phenomenon in its own right, and it’s a thing that filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer explores here as much as he examines the nuts-and-bolts story of how the place came to be, and who the men were who made it happen.
They were Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, two working-class guys from Brooklyn who met at Syracuse University, became friends so close that their relationship was like a marriage, and were determined to do something, anything big. Their passion and their ambition is appealing and exciting: in a new interview, Schrager says now that they wanted to “dent the universe” and “change the world,” and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest — the film certainly does — that they did. Tyrnauer devotes a lot of positive time to the notion that the club represented the final flowering of the sexual revolution, to personal freedom and indulgent decadence as equally embraceable things. Schrager today calls Studio 54’s ambiance “subversive,” like that of a speakeasy of Prohibition; others talk of it as the first place where “people were nonjudgmental,” where “you saw gay men kissing for the first time,” where trans men and women were not only safe but welcomed and celebrated. Arguably, Studio 54 appropriated the gay subculture — such as disco music — and brought it into the mainstream. (I was very much less than impressed with this side of the story in the 1998 semifictional drama 54. Perhaps I need to revisit that film.)
The exclusivity and popularity of the club also helped to foster a resurgence of celebrity journalism and gossip, which hadn’t been such a big deal since perhaps Golden Age Hollywood. Its PR people don’t seem to have needed to apply much pressure to get the New York newspapers to cover all the big names who frequented the club, often featuring them on their front pages. (One vintage clip features an incredibly young Michael Jackson, whose sweet earnestness as he discusses the “freedom” and the “fantasy” the club offers is downright heartbreaking.) This may be less of a good thing than the advancing of acceptance of LGBT folks: our celebrity culture has gone toxic since then in so many ways. (Yes, Donald Trump hung out at Studio 54.)
We’re left with a bittersweet aftertaste: the end of Studio 54 was the end of an era in so many ways.
The intoxicating flavor of Studio 54, as Tyrnauer depicts it — the music will make you want to jump up and dance — soon gives way to mystery, and suspense (at least for those who don’t already know the whole sordid story, or don’t remember): Why didn’t the club endure? Why does Schrager appear on camera — for the first time since back in the day — to talk about his experience, but Rubell appears only in vintage photos and an archival TV interview from the late 80s? (If you don’t know why Rubell isn’t on camera here, you will soon have your suspicions.) Studio 54 is Scorsese-esque, a quintessential tale of men brought down by hubris and “tremendous arrogance” — as, ahem, a federal judge said at the time — of “enormous denial from beginning to end,” sighs Rubell’s brother. This is towering drama, hugely entertaining and very very satisfying in its classical sweep.
We’re also left with a bittersweet aftertaste: the end of Studio 54 was the end of an era in so many ways. The buttoned-down, greed-is-good 80s were in the offing, and the repressive, inhumane neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. The cultural pendulum of human freedom and self-expression started to swing away from the likes of Studio 54, and it hasn’t started to swing back yet.
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