Matt Tyrnauer’s look back at one of the glitziest, decadent, more than borderline illicit, and short lived nightclubs, Studio 54, is a comprehensive and objective look at an NYC cultural phenomenon that burned bright and burned out quickly under the weight of poor decisions. Talking primarily to those involved with the day-to-day operations of Studio 54, Tyrnauer’s documentary balances nostalgia for a bygone era, regrets for past transgressions, and even an unlikely comeback story. For those who lived through it, those who wish they had, and the uninitiated, Studio 54 is the best primer on the club to date.
Although its name has become synonymous with elitism, drug use, and no small amount of freakiness, the height and success of Studio 54 only lasted from its opening in 1977 until its sale to new owners in 1980. Opened in the bowels of a former theatre (which it has since reverted back to forty years later), Studio 54 was the brainchild of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, a pair of best friends who attended Syracuse University together. They couldn’t be any more different. Steve was a boisterous, braggadocious, extroverted gay man who got his start in business owning and operating a chain of steakhouses. Ian was an introverted straight dude with an eye for art, technology and design who initially studied to become a lawyer. Together and inspired by the underground gay club scene, Schrager and Rubell wanted to create an exclusive, vibrant nightclub that reflected the energy and excess of the disco era. Not long after their grand unveiling, Studio 54 became the place to be seen. Celebrity sightings were regular occurrences, and the club’s lofty, but malleable requirements to gain entry became the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, drug stings and investigations into Rubell and Schrager skimming money would lead to Studio 54’s sudden derailment and eventual closure.
While much has been made in films both fictional and documentary about the legacy of Studio 54, Tyrnauer’s film includes many perspectives that haven’t been previously been put on the record. While Rubell, who died at the age of 45 from AIDS related complications, isn’t around to speak on his own behalf, Tyrnauer represents his point of view nicely through carefully selected archival interviews and footage. Rubell’s words rhyme nicely with those of Schrager, who provides Tyrnauer with the narrative backbone for his documentary. Previously reticent to look back on what he thinks were youthful mistakes and transgressions, Schrager, who has since bounced back as one of the people responsible for the boutique hotel boom, is as forthcoming and honest as he could possibly be. While Tyrnauer tries to press his main subject about many of the club’s illegal activities, Schrager’s very careful to only talk about the ones that have been proven in a court of law, sometimes brushing off the director’s genuine concerns with a hearty chuckle. At the same time, Schrager seems to be using the chance to talk about Studio 54’s meteoric rise and fall as a form of therapy and cautious reflection on the past.
Tyrnauer, who’s been making a name for himself as one of today’s preeminent documenters of queer culture on film with works like Valentino: The Last Emperor and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, looks beyond Rubell’s man in the front and Schrager’s behind the scenes brain to look at Studio 54 from all angles. Showing the least amount of interest for Studio 54’s memory as a celebrity hotbed, Tyrnauer turns not to stars of the era to talk about their experiences, but to journalists, artists, and club workers to get a clearer picture of how the company worked and who knew what and when with regards to some of the darker business aspects. The approach is richer and more welcome than any sort of fawning or falsely laudatory look at Rubell and Schrager’s creation could ever hope to be. Studio 54 looks at the personalities that shaped one of the greatest hotspots in American history, and why it mattered to the people who created its image. The world already knows what the view from outside the club was like, and plenty of people knew the atmosphere inside its walls, but few films have ever looked at how enormously difficult it was to keep a place like Studio 54 afloat, giving proper due to those who might have been taken for granted in other projects (especially Schrager).
The pacing of Studio 54 is rather quick, launching into the club’s successes almost as if they happened overnight and inside of a vacuum. Very little is made of the club scene that surrounded Studio 54 and the jealousy that festered between rival dancehalls until late in the film. There’s not too much of a stage being set, and Studio 54 feels like someone kicking open a door and just letting everyone get to the good stuff immediately. It makes the film entertaining, but there’s a larger cultural significance that’s getting the short end of the stick here. If it didn’t happen directly to Rubell and Schrager (or silent partner Jack Dushey, who breaks his silence here) or within the walls of the club, Studio 54 isn’t particularly interested or invested in it, which is a bit of a shame in an otherwise well approached perspective.
The first hour paints a vivid picture of the nightclub’s heyday, but the final thirty minutes of Studio 54 are where things really get good. As Schrager and Rubell grow in their confidence, so too do their laundry list of baffling gaffes. They were brought down basically because they were dumb enough to keep detailed records of their embezzlement. They inexplicably failed to secure a liquor license for over a year into the boozy club’s operation. Drugs were so prevalent that even the most innocuous documents had traces of uncut cocaine on them. They had one of the most powerful and infamous attorneys in history, Roy Cohn (the subject of Tyrnauer’s next documentary), and they still felt the need to shoot themselves in the foot by hiring 36 additional lawyers to muddy the waters. It’s no wonder that Schrager sometimes laughs at the things they almost got away with because it all seems ludicrous in hindsight.
Studio 54 isn’t a film that’s meant to recreate what it was like to be on the dance floor or in the sex soaked balconies of the NYC mecca for late-70s glamour. It’s a look at what it was like to be in the offices and the front lines, which is arguably a much more interesting story. The memory of Studio 54 will last for quite some time, and Tyrnauer’s documentary ensures that the narrative from here on out regarding the club will remain thoughtfully balanced.
Studio 54 opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and Cineplex Forum in Montreal on Friday, October 12, 2018. It expands to the Winnipeg Cinematheque on October 13, Princess Cinemas in Waterloo and The Vic in Victoria on October 19, and to Metro Cinemas in Edmonton on November 16.
Check out the trailer for Studio 54: