Matt Tyrnauer’s “Studio 54” is a hot, baby, disco hell blazing with fun and longing. But it’s also a warning about the corrupting influence of greed on two Brooklyn blue-collar workers who grabbed a shooting star and clung to it for 33 thrilling months in the 1970s before plunging back to earth in a self-inflicted collapse that left them charred and trapped.
Oh, but what a race it was; producing heaps of money from the pockets of top celebrities who wanted to see and be seen at the hottest nightclub the world has ever known, Studio 54. Quite a product of its time, it became the zero point for a revolution in music and fashion. No matter how old-fashioned the clothes and songs were and best forgotten, in the late 1970s you had a choice of being there or being square.
What endures is the ingenuity of the concept conceived by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, two opposing poles who became friends at Syracuse University, united their brilliant minds and had the radical idea of transforming a studio CBS television station abandoned into not just a nightclub, but “an adult amusement park” which spawned a cultural movement in which everyone was allowed to be who they wanted to be, whether black-white, gay- straight, young-old, man-woman, rich-poor. Oops, forget the latter. Schrager and Rubell’s mecca of pomp actually excluded everything but the rich and the well-connected. They were the lucky few allowed to bypass the masses gathered outside the velvet ropes of the haughty West 54th Street establishment located, ironically, in the heart of Manhattan’s version of the Combat Zone.
As with his equally compelling documentaries, “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”, “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” and “Valentino: The Last Emperor”, Tyrnauer’s latest is an extrasensory compilation of photos, excerpts screaming movies, recordings and titles that instantly transport you to another place in time. And what a place was Studio 54 with its mix of innovative architecture, thrilling sounds and kitschy modes. It was the only place you could find Mick and Keith alongside Cher, Truman Capote, Liza Minnelli and Ratpacker Sammy Davis Jr. Even members of the Carter administration could be spotted, the most famous being the president’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, long accused of snorting cocaine on the spot.
Tyrnauer understands all of this, encouraged by Schrager, looking back 40 years through the prism of age and experience. He still speaks fondly of Rubell, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. It was nearly a decade after the couple were sent to jail for tax evasion and drug possession. This is where greed kicks in, as Schrager, Rubell, and their silent partner, Jack Dushey, couldn’t resist skimming off the huge profits that pour in every night of the week. Foolishly, they kept much of the greenery tucked away in rafters and other obvious places, making them sitting ducks when the Feds attacked them in 1978.
The trio’s journey through the court system fills the last 30 minutes of Tyrnauer’s tight, well-narrated documentary, and it’s just as much a buzz for us as it is for them. The result is a shocking change in tone from high-flying hedonism, everything from the club’s heyday to the severity of long prison terms and bankruptcy. Still, it’s no less intriguing, especially when the infamous Roy Cohen – a frontrunner and advocate for the current president as well as Red Scare maven, Senator Joseph McCarthy – appears on the scene as an accomplice and opposing legal adviser. to ethics.
This is where today’s Schrager naturally begins to retreat, both out of embarrassment and out of fear of blame. Before that, he turns out to be a source of information about the club, its design, and its rightful place in the pop culture idiom. It is especially touching whenever we talk about Rubell, his dear friend, with whom he also shared a beach house in the Hamptons that Schrager, now a renowned hotelier, still occupies.
His friend was a gay extrovert, while he was a straight introvert, but neither questioned the other’s sexual motivations or preferences. They were just old Brooklyn buddies who attended the same college, shared a need for creativity, and came together to create not just a nightclub, but a social and cultural landmark. And the one that continues to resonate as loudly today as it did then; a disco hell whose flame will probably never go out.
– Al Alexander can be contacted at email@example.com.
A documentary by Matt Tyrnauer starring Ian Schrager, Steve Rubell, Nile Rodgers and Roy Cohen.
Rating: B +