FILM ARTICLE: Studio 54 The Documentary

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Readers who grew up in the 70’s may well remember the historic Camp David meeting – engineered by then President Jimmy Carter – which successfully brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Almost 40 years later, the summit’s legacy is impossible to determine; in 2018, peace in the middle-east still seems something of a pipe dream. But at least the event provided satirical newspaper The Onion with one of its most outrageous stories, a report that President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin celebrated their diplomatic success with a wild, cocaine fuelled orgy at legendary nightclub, Studio 54. ‘Mideast leaders commemorate Camp David accord by Dancing and Drugging the night away’ reads the headline: ‘Participating in the three hour Bacchanalian ordeal were Sadat, Begin, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Grace Jones, Liza Minnelli and a 6 foot 5 drag queen known as Chantel La Rue. “There’s peace in the Middle-East and now it’s time to play”, La Rue said.’ The report claims President Carter was refused entry.

The history of clubbing is filled with destination dance spots which become part of the cultural landscape, like the Hacienda in Manchester or Fabric in London. But the blueprint was drawn up by friends and business partners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager with Studio 54 – a pulse quickening New York discotheque which attracted celebrities and civilians in equal measure. The hedonistic, dazzling and turbulent history of the club is told in new documentary Studio 54, from director Matt Tyrnauer.

A film still from Studio 54 by Matt Tyrnauer, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Housed in a disused TV studio on 8th Avenue and 54th street, the club opened in 1977, when the disco scene was in full bloom. Rubell and Schrager took inspiration from the gay dance movement and clubs like The Gallery. As Schrager says, ‘We wanted to take it up a notch.’ Purely from a aesthetic perspective, they achieved something remarkable. Architect Eugene de Rosa kept the lighting rig, balcony, and high ceiling, and levelled the auditorium. The long mirrored entrance featured an arched gold ceiling bathed in soft red light. The lounge areas were decorated with silver flecked black carpets, a chrome plated bar and huge urns filled with lilies. This ostentatious glamour made the Palace of Versailles look like the Fleetwood allotment society. The exact cost is still open to debate: Schrager says $400,000 but silent third partner Jack Dushey insists it was closer to $700,000.

Introvert Schrager was the behind-the-scenes genius who turned each night into a showbiz event, whilst extrovert Rubell was 54’s public face, organising staff, schmoozing journalists and celebrities, and making sure a steady supply of drugs was available (drug payments were recorded as ‘party favours’ in the company ledger). Thanks to Rubell’s PR savvy, the club acquired a cachet of cool virtually overnight. In clips, he comes over like a pleasure seeking Daddy Warbucks, part philanthropist, part hedonist. Interestingly, Mike Myers made a convincing Rubell in 54, the only time he’s ever played a straight role: sadly, the film was a hit and miss affair, and butchered by the studio, which chose to place greater dramatic emphasis on the fortunes of a young, fictional bartender rather than the club itself.

A lot of contemporary documentaries rely on reconstruction – i.e., Touching the VoidMan on Wire – because little visual evidence exists. Not the case here: Rubell was pro-active in getting film crews and photographers inside, and it’s exhilarating to see photos and clips of people like Yul Brynner, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Liz Taylor, Truman Capote, Paul Newman, Cary Grant, Cher, Debbie Harry, and Andy Warhol partying the night away (the latter’s dress sense was clearly overlooked, as he turned up looking like a professional blood donor). One clip features a sweetly innocent Michael Jackson who tellingly describes the club as being one of the few places where he feels safe – a sentiment endorsed by many gay and transgender clubbers. Let’s not forget that the 1970’s were a homophobic time; Studio 54 provided a haven where gay men and women could simply be themselves.

attends the STUDIO 54 Documentary Tribeca Film Festival Party on April 24, 2018 in New York City.

It wasn’t long before a backlash started. The club was raided by the Police in its first year, due to operating without a liquor license. The entrance policy was often subjective, with Rubell becoming the fashion equivalent of a German Stasi officer: an attractive woman would be allowed inside but Rubell might instruct her boyfriend to go home and change into a better shirt. One clip shows a disgruntled man being turned away for being unshaven. On his first visit, Nile Rogers of Chic was refused admission, and wrote the song ‘Le Freak’ (originally called ‘F*ck Off’) as an angry riposte. Really, Studio 54 operated more like a private party, with Rubell looking for the right mix of people – which is why 70 year old pensioner Disco Sally became a regular attendee. Studio 54 gave traction to Warhol’s belief that, in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.

Darkness existed beyond the glitter, with all sorts of sexual activity happening in the toilets and basement (there were mattresses on the floor). Drugs were consumed openly, and Quaaludes kept  in an office safe. A SNL skit from the time featured John Belushi as Rubell, cocaine frosted to his lower lip, professing to be shocked that this sort of thing was happening. White House aide Hamilton Jordan was seen taking drugs in the VIP area, an accusation the Carter administration vehemently and predictably denied. Naive party boys Schrager and Rubell corroborated the press story, which perhaps sealed their doom; they’d taken on the political establishment and it wasn’t long before the IRS came knocking on their door. Even the efforts of scary legal Pit Bull Roy Cohn – a depressing, morally bankrupt mentor to Donald Trump – couldn’t stop what happened next: Rubell and Schrager were arrested for tax evasion to the tune of $2 million, and sent to prison. Their sentences were shortened when they reluctantly testified against the financial illegalities of rival club owners, something Schrager, now a successful hotelier, isn’t entirely comfortable discussing. Studio 54 eventually closed its doors after only 33 months of business, its demise hastened by the right-wing ‘Disco Sucks’ movement.

After their release, Schrager and Rubell opened another, equally opulent club, The Palladium, in 1985. Sadly, Rubell died of AIDS related complications four years later, at age 46. Some of the surviving Studio 54 team still find it hard to talk about him without getting upset. In fact, the shadow of AIDS hovers over the Studio 54 story like a blackened mirror ball: over half the young men who helped build the club tragically succumbed to the disease.

There are some gaps in Tyrnauer’s film. Schrager’s father had Mafia connections, and the interviewer gives him an easy ride on this subject. The soundtrack selection is predictable, and features just over a dozen disco cuts. There are no interviews with the DJ’s, and no mention of the songs which got the crowd grooving (maybe this will emerge as an entertaining DVD Extra). But for the most part, Studio 54 is an engrossing and entertaining affair, which succeeds on one very important level – it makes you wish you’d been invited to the party.



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