You already know the story. Or at least you thought you did. Studio 54 is so iconic and indelibly etched in our collective understanding of the disco-era hedonism of the ‘70s that we feel as though there couldn’t possibly be more to the story. But one of the great surprises of Matt Tyrnauer’s giddy glitterbomb of a documentary about New York’s infamously Caligulan Me Decade hot spot is discovering how much of our culture (the drugs, the music, the sexual liberation) is wrapped up in one nightclub that existed for a mere 33 months.
Thanks to the rare on-the-record cooperation of co-owner Ian Schrager (his partner, Steve Rubell died of complications resulting from AIDS in 1989), what’s old feels vibrantly alive and new again. Before opening the temple to their times, Schrager and Rubell, two Jewish hustlers from Brooklyn, met at Syracuse University. Shortly after graduating, they would partner up on a chain of steak restaurants – hardly a harbinger of what was to come. After first opening a club called The Enchanted Garden in Queens, they sensed like diving rods that something was changing in the culture – a perfect storm of money, celebrity, and exclusivity. Their genius was grasping that before anyone else and acting on it by turning an abandoned theater on West 54th Street into a mecca of bold-faced abandon – a place where the famous could let themselves go with a Darwinian velvet-rope door policy keeping the bridge-and-tunnel riff-raff (like themselves) at bay.
Studio 54 was an immediate smash, quickly becoming the after-hours clubhouse for a demimonde of Carter-era celebrities who were so glamorous they required only one name: Mick, Bianca, Michael, Liza, Truman, Liz, Farrah, Elton, Halston, Andy, Divine, Cher, the list goes on. While you won’t find many of those luminaries waxing nostalgic here (a minor, but not insignificant, flaw of the film), Tyrnauer, the director of Valentino: The Last Emperor, has done a good job of interviewing Studio 54 regulars and staff members and mixing testimonials with archival clips and photographs. The stills of dancefloor abandon practically ooze with sweat, poppers, and cocaine. They capture the moment. The soundtrack selections, on the other hand, could have used more deep-cut surprises.
Considering the brief lifespan of the club, it’s remarkable how much of an impact it had on the popular imagination. Before Studio 54 would even celebrate its third anniversary, it was raided by the Feds. Schrager and Rubell had been playing fast and loose with their accounting ledgers and would soon both be sleeping off the decade’s hangover behind bars. Still, even their crash-and-burn fall can’t dilute the thrill of Tyrnauer’s time capsule of a time when New York was dangerous and fun, fun because it was dangerous, and the party seemed like it would never stop. B+