Film Review: Limelight

Darkly fascinating documentary reveals the high price to be paid for providing and having fun in a pre-Disneyfied Big Apple.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, one man from Canada ruled New York nightlife. His name was Peter Gatien and he is the subject of Billy Corben’s documentary Limelight, which charts his dizzying rise and fall. From Limelight, a converted landmark Manhattan church, to the vast, glamorous disco playground Palladium, to hip hop epicenter Tunnel, all of which he owned, Gatien cut a wide swath through New York culture in terms of music, fashion and recreational drug use.

This last element was, unfortunately, instrumental in the dissolution of Gatien’s empire. By the mid-1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was well into his mission to clean up New York, and Gatien found himself a particular target of virulent law-enforcement focus. Corben’s numerous interviewees recall the improbable pair of shady undercover cops who, dressed rather unconvincingly in flashy club drag, uncovered evidence of drug sales in Gatien’s clubs, which helped to shut everything down.

Gatien himself is, of course, a prominent presence here, surrounded by a neon nimbus of lighting and sporting the trademark eye-patch (resulting from a youthful hockey mishap) which easily stereotyped him as some kind of dark prince of evil. “Beleaguered” is an understatement when it comes to describing this man, who was arrested for tax evasion, served prison time, declared bankruptcy and staged a brief comeback, only to face deportation to Canada, where he still lives today, separated from his family.

It’s a sad, messy, fascinating tale, populated by an unusually motley cast of characters, many of whom could have stepped right out of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Prominent among them is Gatien’s former club promoter, Michael Alig, still serving time for the murder of drug dealer and one-time Limelight employee Angel Melendez, and “Lord” Michael Caruso, another Limelight promoter and murder suspect, who has confessed to a number of crimes but never served time, largely due to his cooperation in the government case against Gatien.

This writer spent some nights at the Limelight, and always found it a strange and, yes, dark experience, for all its fun and flamboyance. Not long after the club opened, a New York photographer was killed in a freak car accident which happened at its very front door, something this doc fails to mention. There always seemed to be something like bad karma surrounding the place back then, and now, seeing all this evidence, I can well understand the reason for it.