Review: Lively documentary ‘Studio 54’ captures the glory days of disco and decadence
If you think you already know everything you need to — or want to — about what remains the world’s most iconic night club, the evocative, deep-dive documentary “Studio 54” has news for you.
Viewers inclined to hustle back to the sex-drugs-and-disco-ball late 1970s will find this immersive and entertaining new look at a short-lived but wildly influential New York institution jam-packed with a fascinating wealth of archival visuals, emotional insight, candor and echoes of the kind of ill-fated hubris that exemplified the story’s freewheeling, hedonistic era.
Director Matt Tyrnauer, who directed the fun and dishy documentary “Scotty and the Secret Life of Hollywood,” presents a fairly straightforward (not a bad thing) retelling of how Studio 54 came to be — thanks to visionary college friends and Brooklyn boys Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. For a few shining years, the flashy club helped propel the age of celebrity and served as a safe haven for gay and transgender people as well as for the rich and famous who wanted to party down.
The loquacious and outgoing (and mostly closeted) Rubell, who died in 1989 at age 45 of AIDS-related complications, is kept alive throughout the film via a plethora of vivid TV news and interview footage, clips and photos of the impresario working the starry crowds both inside and outside Studio (as it was called for short), and a recently shot chat with Rubell’s seemingly close brother, Don.
But the film greatly benefits from having the more introverted Schrager still around to provide firsthand insight, with the luxury of 40 years of reflective perspective, into the inner workings of his and Rubell’s legendary creation.
Schrager, now one of the world’s leading hoteliers, kept a low profile during the Studio days, gladly ceding the limelight to pal Rubell. He publicly opens up here, reportedly for the first time, as we learn about the disco’s quick ascent (it was built in six weeks on the grand site of an old CBS broadcast studio — and former opera house — on West 54th Street); its star-studded, mob-scene opening; and events that, in late 1978, led the IRS to raid the mega-successful cash cow, uncovering drugs, cooked books and evidence of serious money skimming.
In his revealing and far-reaching interview, the speech-impeded Schrager, now 72, makes for an obliging witness, though he clearly would rather not dwell too deeply on some of Studio’s seamier elements (and why would he?), particularly the reckless financial shenanigans that landed both he and Rubell in prison.
Tyrnauer has decidedly avoided latter-day interviews with the myriad of living celebs who made regular, much-documented appearances at Studio 54: Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Mick Jagger, Calvin Klein, Elton John, Diana Ross, Cher, Grace Jones and on and on. Given how much these A-listers show up in the doc’s archival bits, current meet-ups with a few of them wouldn’t have hurt.
The filmmaker does, however, feature useful new chats with designers and technicians who helped turn the disco into a flamboyant, decadent, one-of-a-kind theatrical experience. Studio doorman Marc Benecke, silent partner Jack Dushey and a few other staffers and publicists are also interviewed.
For Top 40 fans, such period dance hits as Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” are among the many key tunes nostalgically spun here.
Ultimately, “Studio 54” proves a nostalgic, sometimes wistful, other times unsettling look back at a singular period of time: those post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, pre-AIDS-crisis years when glitz, glamour and excess moved to the disco beat and, for a flash, it seemed like the party would never end. But boy, did it ever.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Playing: Starts Oct. 12, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles
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