Studio 54: the rise and fall and rise of a disco pleasure palace

There is a sequence in the documentary Studio 54 where the camera tracks down the opulent hallway towards the entrance to the dance floor. Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” explodes on the soundtrack while a montage of photographs and film clips dazzles the eyes. It may not be exactly as overwhelmingly wonderful as actually being at Studio 54 in its heyday, but it gives a powerful approximation of what it must have felt like.

Studio 54 follows a standard biographical format – background on the two creators Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the creation of the concept and the nightclub, the wild success and the wild goings-on, the tax and drugs bust, the demise, and the aftermath – but director Matt Tyrnauer has deeper intentions than just rehashing scandals. If he had just rehashed scandals, Studio 54 would still have been an entertaining film: the found footage, newspaper clippings, photographs and interviews are exhilarating and contain much that was new to at least this viewer.

Tyrnauer is interested in placing the Studio 54 saga in a cultural and historical context, specifically, as he did in the must-see Scotty Bowers and the Secret History of Hollywood, a gay context. We are told that models started joining their hairdressers and make-up artists at gay clubs which were far superior to the straight version. Inevitably straight men followed, were forced to be tolerant, and the entire disco scene, and the nightlife that resulted from it, blossomed. Nile Rodgers notes that black culture, where disco originated, is mixed in there too, it is the mixing of cultures and sexualities that was radical and groundbreaking.

Various narrators explain that it was a “safe space.” One claims it was the first place that gay men could kiss in public. A pair of drag queens or trans folk, or just dressed to the tits fashionistas, explain that they feel not only safe but included. Steve Rubell tries to explain the door policy by explaining they want couples “or gay men.” And when the culture at large turned on disco, the “disco sucks” years, Trynauer frames it as virulent homophobia and racism.

Studio 54 also posits Studio 54 as the fuse that ignited celebrity culture that quickly mutated into the dominating horror show that it is now. People magazine began at the same time and a publicist explains how she made a fortune getting paid for every celebrity she wrangled into the club. And paid again for every newspaper headline mentioning a celebrity at Studio 54. It is funny and deeply terrifying.

Hundreds of names – Halston, Capote, Cher, Bianca, Andy – are dropped and their photographs flashed across the screen.  That is part of the appeal of the legend of Studio 54, the celebrities who were stars before the label lost its lustre. The only complaint about Studio 54 is that the salacious details are only alluded to, but that is more than compensated for by a truly mind-boggling interview with a youthful afro-ed and acne-peppered Michael Jackson who claims he comes to Studio 54 for the “escapism.” Celebrity culture eventually, as it does to all celebrities, destroyed Studio 54: the people excluded wanted in.

There is a possibly unintended tension to Studio 54. The main interviewee is co-owner/co-creator Ian Schrager who was the behind the scenes force at the nightclub. He tells the story of the rise and fall and makes a point of telling us that this is the first time he has spoken on camera. He is still an extraordinarily handsome man but he hedges on some details, feigns innocence or ignorance, and is often contradicted by the visuals. He is also contradicted by the prosecutor who raided and charged the nightclub owners and put Schrager and Rubell in jail.

There is a suspicious thread that suggests that Schrager was convinced to talk in order to promote his current business venture, a chain of boutique hotels (and possibly a coffee table book about Studio 54, the proofs of which he is shown admiring). He does get a brief advertorial at the end and a metaphorical send off. Studio 54 was designed as theatre (and mainly by Broadway production veterans) which was a new concept for a nightclub in the ’70s. The staff were referred to as “cast members,” and the clientele encouraged to think of themselves as stars. Schrager drily notes that he and Rubell also invented the concept of boutique hotels aka hotels as a theatrical experience.

It is also unsettling to watch footage of Schrager and Rubell interacting with their lawyer, Roy Cohn. Cohn is now such a villain that it becomes impossible to root for Schrager and Rubell who should be the heroes of the film. Tyrnauer doesn’t shy away from Cohn’s closeted creepiness and the parallel to the blustery bullying that the US’s current excuse of a president who, not incidentally, learned that style when Cohn was his lawyer. Schrager may have wanted to tell his story but he quickly loses any empathy through guilt by association with Cohn. The creation, which after all is the title, pushes him off stage.

 

Of course nothing so glamorous, exciting, and, as is demonstrated repeatedly, operating outside of the law could survive. There are very entertaining, and scary, descriptions of how to ignore the need for a liquor license – Cohn managed to keep them open and liquor licence free for over six months – and of where the common slang term “party favours” originated. The sheer magnitude of what Schrager and Rubell skimmed off the top is quite startling.

Rubell manages to hijack the film a few times. Schrager is obviously still lost without the extrovert to his introvert and Tyrnauer places the film firmly in the sexual freedom space between the invention of the pill and the arrival of AIDS. Rubell was inspired to embrace his gayness by being part of Studio 54, but he still denied publicly that he had AIDS and his mother was heard to ask at the funeral why her son had never married. It is a glorious and gory snapshot of a horrible time in our history and a warning about complacency.

There is a lot of history and cultural contextualizing in Studio 54 but overlaid and driving it, at 125 bpm, is the magnificent thrust of disco itself. The opening with Sylvester is sublime, the finale with The Andrea True Connection is irony with a beat. For a genre that “sucks,” disco has never been so expressive. Niles Rodgers shakes his head ruefully and notes that the party before the co-owners went to jail was as much fun as the opening (with Diana Ross and Liza performing a duet, how could it not be?). Partying in the face of certain ruin and despair is disco, and I’d like to think, gay style personified.

I hope the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema cranks the sound to 11.

Studio 54 screens Fri, Oct 12 to Thurs, Oct 18 at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor St W. hotdocscinema.ca

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