‘Studio 54’: Film Review | Sundance 2018
Matt Tyrnauer’s doc charts the rise and fall of the disco that became synonymous with velvet-rope debauchery.
Striking the right balance of elation and regret — that is, just enough of the latter to not let anybody off the hook — Matt Tyrnauer’s Studio 54 captures the comet-like excitement of the disco run by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager for under three years in the late 1970s. Relying on interviews with Schrager and other insiders instead of cramming in every celeb who graced the dancefloor, Tyrnauer delivers a meaty and transporting portrait that will play well both with older auds and those (like some twenty-somethings manning the tent outside Monday’s screening) who, surprisingly, have never heard of the nightclub.
Sitting down for Tyrnauer’s camera in a black t-shirt and cropped gray hair, Schrager says that he is finally letting himself discuss the short-lived club because “it doesn’t sting as much” and he believes that, with partner Rubell long dead, he’s the only one who can tell the story fully. He’ll also be interviewed alongside the club’s silent partner Jack Dushey; separately, Tyrnauer will talk to everyone from lighting designers and crew to the club’s first doorman.
Together they show how Rubell and Schrager, Brooklyn boys who met in college and immediately became friends, decided to seek their fortune by creating the perfect nightclub. They made a test run with Enchanted Garden, a venue in Queens aimed at locals, and studied the emerging disco scene in Manhattan as they pondered how to stand out. Viewers unfamiliar with the era get a quick rundown of the way disco — music created by black artists and embraced early by gay men — fostered an inclusive vibe in clubs, soon drawing fashion models as well, along with the straight men who wanted to sleep with them.
Schrager and Rubell discovered a former CBS television studio in what was then a very seedy part of town, then raced to turn it into a dance venue. They hired Tony Award-winning lighting designers, and Schrager claims theirs was the first club that actually hired people to work lights, something DJs were responsible for in other clubs. One thing they neglected during the build-out was a liquor license, and you have to laugh at the pair’s brazen solution when they wanted to open the doors: They formed a catering company, and used a series of one-night catering permits to sell drinks at the bar.
Employees and a choice few patrons recall the excitement of opening night — being drawn through the lobby toward what soon became Manhattan’s hub of anything-goes hedonism. Tyrnauer has more than enough photos and film clips of blissful dancers and soused people on couches to make you feel you’re there, and makes great use of period newscasts.
As Studio 54’s fame quickly spread (thanks to publicists who got paid for every famous face they brought to the club, and for every news story written about them), management became famous for their choosiness at the door. Rubell and his capricious staff wanted the right mix of the beautiful, the famous and the strange — we’re told that Rubell invented the term “bridge and tunnel,” describing the polyester-clad non-Manhattanites who were never to be admitted — and, if the hordes who never got past the velvet rope fostered a growing resentment against them, Schrager says “we didn’t care.”
Once inside (we’re told, though we may not believe it), everyone was equal. An old TV news clip shows Rubell being interviewed in his office when Michael Jackson comes by shyly, eventually kneeling by Rubell’s chair to tell the journalist that the club’s escapist vibe was unlike anywhere else. Soon we see him dancing in the club, just one of the happy crowd.
The chemical aspect of that happiness gets discussed here, and we see how Rubell, who thrived on cozying up to his celebrity customers, indulged as much in the drugs he supplied as they did. Which, though the two things may not be strictly related, points the film toward the club’s downfall.
Rubell and Schrager were skimming vast amounts of cash from the till, and keeping meticulous records of those sums. In 1978, an IRS army raided the club and found enough evidence to pursue them for tax evasion. (At the time, people thought the raid was prompted by Rubell’s bragging about his success in the press, but a lawman here says it was actually a tip from a disgruntled employee.)
Despite a moment or two at which he doesn’t seem to be 100% open, Schrager (like others here) is pretty frank about how all this played out. Tyrnauer dutifully follows the partners’ struggles with prosecutors, and marvels at how little fear they had of repercussions. (When you’re represented by the reptilian power-lawyer Roy Cohn, an enabler of both Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump, it’s easy to believe you can get away with anything.) Astoundingly, at the height of their legal woes, they closed the club briefly for a massive $1.5 million renovation.
Things get considerably less fun from this point out, but the film captures the end-of-an-era mood succinctly. Reagan, AIDS and rising anti-disco sentiment seemed to come around just as Rubell and Schrager went to jail, and they made things worse for themselves by snitching on other nightclub owners in order to reduce their sentences. Yet they came back from infamy after prison, launching another “it” club together in the ’80s and starting what would become the boom in boutique hotels. Rubell died of AIDS before that hotel project became an empire. Schrager, knowing what his friend would have wanted, spent days on the phone to ensure that Manhattan’s most famous people came to the funeral.
Production companies: Altimeter Films, Passion Pictures
Distributor: A&E Indie Films
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Producers: Matt Tyrnauer, John Battsek, Corey Reeser
Executive producers: Molly Thompson, Robert Sharenow, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Andrew Ruhemann
Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz
Editor: Andrea Lewis
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Doc Premieres)
Sales: John Sloss, Cinetic