Zeitgeist Films, in association with Kino Lorber and A & E IndieFilms, is distributing a fascinating documentary that should endure as an important historical look at a tumultuous period in New York City’s nightlife. As any good documentary does, “Studio 54,” directed by Matt Tymauer, reflects much more than the immediate subject and sheds light on the period in which the elaborate and popular disco exploded onto the scene and flourished until events combined to end the binge.
Those who lived through that period and were part of the Studio 54 scene in the establishment on West 54th Street will find plenty of nostalgia in the array of rare film clips included. Young folks today should be intrigued watching the incredible scene that they missed.
Partners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, college friends from Brooklyn, in an effort to create something big, founded Studio 54, without realizing the huge effect it would have. The club flourished for 33 months from 1978-1980. The partners took over a vacant theater and turned it into a light-flashing, disco-blaring extravaganza that was an immediate hit. Clips show the throngs of New Yorkers lining up to get in, but many could never make it. Celebrities were readily ushered in, as were people with colorful dress and looks that would add to the luster and free-wheeling nature of the massive party that made it the place to be. Velvet ropes became a nightly barrier that many schemed to pass.
Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen there—notables such as Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli, for example, and an assortment of stars, politicians and socialites who made the scene of wild disco dancing and exhibitionism. There was no sexual or racial discrimination. Some habitués were scantily dressed (clips show protruding breasts), others flashed flaring outfits, all captured in the film records used in the documentary. For a while the barrage clips begins to seem repetitious, but basically, the portrait of what was going on is brilliantly recalled.
Drug use was reputed to be rampant, and the place oozed sexuality. New Yorkers and others seeking to let themselves go to a disco beat stormed the place. Those who were turned away grew angry and resentful. Studio 54 was a night club Mecca. This was also a period when AIDS began to take hold, the ravages of which are also dealt with in the film.
The bubble burst when Schrager and Rubell were arrested for tax evasion by skimming and hiding money from the take. Invading lawmen also found drugs in the club. The two were convicted and sent to prison, but had sentences reduced when they fingered others for illegalities, a deed that Schrager is not proud of but nonetheless says that he felt he needed to do at the time. He is candid in talking about mob connections of his late father, and notes that his father would have frowned upon his informing. Both Schrager and Rubell eventually received presidential pardons.
Schrager is interviewed at length and makes a colorful subject full of recollections about the period. There are lots of clips of Rubell, who died in 1989, as well as of others who had a part in running the operation. Rubell fell ill with AIDS, which devastated Schrager in view of their long-time friendship and working relationship. Studio 54 collapsed after their imprisonment despite their trying to get it going again. They subsequently went into the hotel business, and Schrager has since built a chain of hotels.
In the heat of their troubles their lawyer was Roy Cohn, and the clips of the devious Cohn are sickening. Just watching him maneuver recalls his disgraceful role as an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the red-scare days, as well as his having been close to Donald Trump. Cohn died of AIDS in 1986.
“Studio 54” has a thumping disco score to help keep up the atmosphere, and the overall effect is to sweep us back into that era, along with oversight and insight into the significance of the period. (Note: Today Studio 54 is a Broadway theater, and Feinstein’s/54 Below is a popular, nicely appointed cabaret in the basement and a regular venue for cabaret acts.) A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber and A & E IndieFilms. Reviewed October 5, 2018.