There’s been so much written, said and filmed about New York’s famed disco era icon Studio 54, that filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer was hard-pressed to find anything new for his documentary, “Studio 54” (Oct. 5).
What he settled on was the tactile glitz of the facility, the cultural watershed moment the discotheque represented and the fellows who ran it.
Nobody particularly famous is interviewed for the film, none of the survivors of the Liza/Bianca/Halston/Warhol/Liz/Michael set speak anew, they’re just seen in archival footage or in tiny snippets of vintage TV interviews.
The Fall of Rome hedonism is given its due — sex and sexuality, seeing and being seen — all that. But so is the mad rush to build in the joint, the genius “adult theme park” design, the stunning lighting and sense of “event” created there for $40-65,000 per night — wind machines and balloons, confetti and snow, ballet interludes and high-wire acts and not-quite-stripper performances.
An army of ex-employees, from the manager to the bouncer and on-call makeup and hair stylists, join surviving partner Ian Schrager in laying out the logistics of how the whole mad scene worked.
And it’s fascinating, even if the “revelations” are few and far between, even if the nostalgia seems a little misplaced for a club built on decadence, hedonism, cocaine and the premise of almost-accessible exclusivity.
Young college pals on the make Steve Rubell and Schrager “worked” their way up to the massive facility on 54th and Eighth by scouting the underground gay nightclubs where models would show up on the arms of their gay fashion designers. Rubell (closeted at the time) noticed that straight men wanted to go where the models were.
And after getting a start in Queens with the Palace Garden, they rounded up the cash to get hold of the art deco Gallo Opera House, later an abandoned CBS TV studio that they turned into Studio 54.
Tyrnauer, who did “Valentino: The Last Emperor” about the Italian fashion magnate, is the first filmmaker to lose himself in the glories of the building itself, its ornate, high done ceiling and vaulted entryways, and in the way competing club moguls blackballed Rubell and Schrager and kept club designers from helping them.
So Schrager, a lawyer by training, took on conceptualizing the place, and Tony winning stage and lighting designers came in with Broadway crews and created a permanent spectacle — using the gorgeous bones of the building, tapping into its opera and TV past, filling the place with lights, and pools of darkness, neon and mirror balls and accomplishing this in a mad “get ready for opening night” Broadway sprint
Rubell envisioned a club where gay and straight worlds would meet on equal, non-threatening footing, a club where the pre-AIDS/post-Pill and Vietnam promiscuity had a place, as did the sense of a “show” that the audience — “cast” each night — put on.
Rubell is seen, barking at folks behind “the velvet rope” — “You didn’t shave. Don’t come here if you can’t be bothered to shave.” “Go home and change your shirt.” Couples were broken up (beautiful women allowed in, their dates often refused entrance).
And from the chaotic, front-page news opening night in April of 1977, celebrities were courted, “wrangled” by publicists, giving the place both cachet and a chance for the not famous but good looking to mingle with the glitterati.
“You have to build a nice mousetrap to attract the mice” a glassy-eyed Rubell said in a TV interview at the time. As cub reporter Jane Pauley asks him another question, Michael Jackson strolls into the office in all his high-voiced pre-“Thriller” glory, making another Rubell dream come true.
Celebrities and others felt “free” there, Schrager and others declare. The paparazzi were let in, “but only the ones who played by our rules.” Closeted celebs and bankers could “be themselves” and gay and straight hookups and furtive couplings were the norm.
Schrager, the surviving partner, is here to define the business model — “A club is all about capturing the moment.” Never forget what you’re selling because “you have no discernible product except for the magic you create.”
And Schrager is here to accept his part in the sudden fall of the club and its leadership — tax and drug problems, jail time. He dodges questions if not responsibility. “I don’t remember. All I know is I got the benefit and I was a co-conspirator.”
The flood of photographs and miles of film and video tape exposed in Studio provide ample proof of what made it special. And a lengthy third act gives us the film’s few revelations about that downfall, the greed, arrogance and unsavory practices that ended 54’s run after just 33 months.
The club is long gone — I’ve seen plays at the Roundabout Theatre Company there, and I recall seeing movies in the building (in a once-seedy neighborhood that the club helped bring back to life) in past decades.
But Tyrnauer makes a good case for this disco Parthenon’s place in American history, the role it played in moving gay lifestyles towards more mainstream acceptance and its status as cultural watershed — flaming out in the ’70s, with Reagan. AIDS and “Greed is good” pushing it into the dustbin of history in the ’80s.
Funny, few people have fond things to say about the decade that followed. But Studio 54 they want to remember, or hear about if they were too young to get a gander at it in its glory. “Studio 54” gives them their most thorough look back yet.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager, Jack Dushey,
Credits:Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. A Zeitgeist release.
Running time: 1:39