Film Review: Studio 54

You want the full, flamboyant—if quite short—story of the greatest nightclub in history? This is it.
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Once upon a time, two Brooklyn boys, one introverted, serious and straight, and the other gay, gregarious and sometimes flamboyantly out of control, met at Syracuse University, bonded and together crafted a true magical kingdom. Their names, respectively, were Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, and what they created was a nightclub called Studio 54. Although it lasted a mere 33 months, 33 years later people still talk about the club, the varied, often drug-fueled celebrities and common party-goers who let their hair down there, and the way it seemed to forever epitomize a certain post-Pill, pre-AIDS zeitgeist of frenzied hedonism in the wake of Watergate.

Although various factual and fictional (Mark Christopher’s 1998 54, butchered by Harvey Weinstein and only now reappearing in a director’s cut; Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco) films have attempted to capture this disco of discos, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Studio 54 finally tells its full story, and an enthralling, sometimes absurd, sometimes very sad and at times almost unbelievable story it is. The director’s major coup here was getting the full cooperation of Schrager, now a super-successful hotel magnate who, from the very beginning, has maintained a near-legendary stoic silence about everything. I should know, for—full confession—I worked at 54 on opening night as a busboy and once attended a Parliament Funkadelic concert at Madison Square Garden in the company of the late journalist Bob Weiner, Annie Leibovitz and Schrager, who did not utter a word all evening.

Schrager does indeed finally open his mouth and, in a raspy Brooklyn accent, recounts how the pair took over a former Broadway theatre and in a whirlwind six weeks had the club opening of openings, with hordes outside dying to get in, with even Sinatra and Beatty rumored to have been unsuccessful in gaining entry. The momentum only continued to build as the place became a semi-private playground for every star from every field in the world, and the very name “54” became emblematic of both the ultimate in disco chic and decadence.

Tyrnauer grabs you with all the glamour and frisson he recreates through the pumping classic dance music, myriad star-packed archival photos and, best of all, actual, never-seen 16mm footage taken in the club itself, that proves once and for all it truly was everything it was rumored to be, and more. And then the story gets really interesting as, with an almost forensically detailed probing, he reveals 54’s swift downfall, which was a result of the now suddenly royally entitled owners’ overweening hubris and braggadocio, blatantly shady doings like switching cash registers publicly in the middle of the nightly fiestas, the attendant tax evasion, overt drug use and probably a lot of hurt feelings from some of the thousands who had been turned away at that just-invented velvet rope of exclusivity.

What’s striking and very effective is Tyrnauer’s surprising choice of the interviewees who appear in his film. Although many who comprised 54’s nightly elite core group—Halston, Warhol, Capote, artist Antonio Lopez, Roy Cohn (the club’s lawyer)—have died, many still survive—Liza, Bianca Jagger, Calvin Klein, Diana Ross, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg—but none are present, lasciviously jawing away about them bad old fun days. Instead, the director achieves a real insider view by focusing more on the brassy staff and key players in its inception, like the effervescently irascible party planner Carmen D’Alessio, who was key in forming the ground- and class-breaking mélange of guests from the worlds of showbiz, fashion, high and gay society that made the place cook in just the right, deliriously hedonistic way.

With the legal problems of Schrager and Rubell, who emerges for all his sloppy, drugged-out bravado as a touching figure who finally was able to come out as a gay man because of the beyond-tolerant ambiance of the place he invented, dying of AIDS at age 45, Tyrnauer brings on a riveting slew of talking heads—lawyers and law enforcers—who describe the shocking circus of a police raid and subsequent trial that landed the pair in jail. But not before they threw themselves the splashiest going-away party of all time, the craziness of which has Schrager still shaking his head in disbelief. (I was there and it was utterly wild, as well as bittersweet, with a still high-as-a-kite Rubell (Quaaludes!) climbing up on the bar to announce free drinks for everybody.)