You probably know the legend of Studio 54. Maybe you’re old enough to have been there for the midtown disco’s flash-in-the-pan heyday, and remember reading about all of the celebrities who passed through its blacked out doors (you might even have been one of the people in the curbside throngs, struggling to get the bouncer’s attention as Liza Minnelli swanned right through the crowd). Or maybe you’re barely old enough to remember the disastrous movie from the summer of 1998, in which Mike Myers played club co-founder Steve Rubell, and a shirtless Ryan Phillippe starred as a fictional bridge-and-tunnel bartender named Shane O’Shea. Either way, Studio 54 feels like a story that’s already been told — like a broad synonym for whatever kind of paradise New York City used to be.
And yet, Matt Tyrnauer’s riveting documentary manages to make it all seem new again — alive, as though it were happening for the first time at warp-speed before your eyes. A simple chronology that’s inflected with evocative archival footage and seasoned with modern-day interviews with some of the major players (many of whom have never really talked about the club on the record), “Studio 54” isn’t an especially clever or innovative film, but it taps into its namesake’s dormant spirit, and reclaims a famous piece of Manhattan folklore for the people who made it possible.
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Like Studio 54 itself, Tyrnauer’s doc thrives on access. For the first time since he and his business partner (Rubell) were forced to sell the discoteque in 1980, former co-owner Ian Schrager has agreed to discuss the defining period of his life. Now gray, 72, and still a bit withdrawn, Schrager nevertheless reveals himself to be a more engaging narrator than you might expect from someone who always billed himself as the introvert of the operation. Of course, next to an outsized personality like Steve Rubell, even Russell Brand might seem small.
Schrager, whose clear memory is complicated by decades of perspective, talks through how he and Rubell both emerged from upwardly mobile Brooklyn families and became close friends during their time at Syracuse University. Schrager was handsome but shy, and born with a low-key genius for getting other people to give him their money; Rubbell was a closeted extrovert, who dreamed of creating a place where he could be himself. One was the brains, and the other was the heart and the magic and the face that popped up in all of the tabloids. These two men came together during the brief window between the invention of the pill and the advent of AIDS (to paraphrase one of the many key talking heads who Tyrnauer spoke to on camera), and they made the most of it.
As with any rise and fall story, the first part of “Studio 54” is a lot more fun. There’s a hazy, impressionistic quality to the 16mm footage that Tyrnauer uses to take us back in time, and it graces his film with the feel of a lucid dream. And it’s kind of amazing how much of it Tyrnauer has, even of the comparatively mundane business of building the club in a six-week stretch of “unbridled energy.” It’s more than enough to give us a sense of the times (a post-Watergate recession in which everyone was eager to forget about politics and obsess over celebrity), and provide a backdrop for all of the iconic music you’d expect to hear in a film like this. And, of course, Tyrnauer devotes plenty of time to all the spurned hopefuls who couldn’t get in: “Like the damned looking into paradise,” someone describes them.
Best of all are the snippets of the scene inside the club when Studio 54 was at the height of its heat, when Andy Warhol could always be counted on to roll through with some of the people from his factory, and a young Michael Jackson might be seen leaning against a wall in the back office and talking about how much he loved the place. Watching this stuff, you get the sense that everyone who worked there was like a cast member in a non-judgemental erotic revue. Even at the time, it must have felt too good to last. Then again, all of the best parties have a way of feeling like they might go on forever.
It’s understandable that Tyrnauer doesn’t want to dwell on what happened when things went downhill, but the speed at which he blitzes through the decline of Studio 54 — and the sudden arrest of its co-owners — makes it hard to grasp how it happened, or at least how it felt to those who had come to rely on the club as a beacon or a safe haven. The end feels almost as surreal for viewers, as it we’re told it did for Rubell and Schrager. At the same time, this part almost overplays its hand, as the appearance of Roy Cohn as Rubbell and Schrager’s lawyer instantly tells us everything we need to know about the next chapter of their lives.
But there’s still plenty of time left in the film by the time that happens. “Studio 54” may be a traditional rise and fall story, but this film has an unusual focus on the period of reflection that tends to follow. “We rose and fell together,” Schrager says, absent any of the animosity that you’ve come to expect from narratives like this one. Remembering the blow-out party the two friends threw at the club on the night before they went to jail, Schrager can only laugh: “When I look back at it now, it is so preposterous. What were we thinking?”
“Studio 54” is resonant because it offers such a reasonable and poignant answer to that question. Tyrnauer, in a roundabout way that never quite tips over into dull reverence, suggests that Rubbell and Schrager weren’t wrong to tilt at windmills and pursue a dream that could never survive the morning. Schrager says that “it was fun holding onto a lightning bolt,” and this film loves him for that. He and his late partner were only at the reins of Studio 54 for 33 months, but we’re still talking about what they did more than 33 years later. So, one imagines, maybe they were thinking that it would all be worth it in the end. And maybe they were right.
Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber will release “Studio 54” in theaters on October 5.