One imagines that Studio 54, the new documentary by Matt Tyrnauer about the infamous ’70s nightclub, played very well to NYC audiences when it opened there earlier this month. Chances are, the theater was dotted with more than a few people who had been around to see the place for themselves, to experience the bacchanalian nights filled with disco and drugs.
For those of us either not in New York or not yet alive for the fun, the film serves as a riotous time capsule with surprising depth as it recounts the partnership that began it all and the club’s epic fall from grace less than three years after opening. It’s all shared straight from the horse’s mouth, as Ian Schrager, who created the place with business partner Steve Rubell, recounts it all for the first time. Now a successful boutique hotel developer, he’s largely kept quiet about that time in his life and it’s understandable why. If you went from running the most exclusive club in Manhattan to serving time behind bars, you’d probably be keen to move past it all as quickly and completely as possible, too.
Tyrnauer capitalizes on the countless photos, video clips and personalities that came out of Studio 54 to create lively visuals of the club’s early days. The party seemingly never stopped, celebrities and socialites there to see and be seen (and hopefully make the front page of the next day’s New York Post). Combined with a soundtrack to rival any club’s Saturday night playlist, this first half of the documentary successfully communicates the astronomical new heights of publicity and exposure Schrager and Rubell achieved, and all before the former was 30 years old.
That makes the second half all the more impressive, as Tyrnauer seamlessly shifts gears into investigative journalism, covering the club’s fall from grace as the IRS starts to look into their books and the feds get a little too curious about potential illegal happenings inside. Sure enough, Schrager and Rubell weren’t exactly running their business on the up and up, and even their newfound celebrity couldn’t save them from the long arm of the law. Most of what precipitated the club’s closing in early 1980 is public knowledge, and yet Tyrnauer still manages to unearth a few gems, including an interview with the pair’s silent partner, who was willing to testify against them, and taking Schrager back to the actual space to walk through his memories of the day they were raided.
As historical records go, the timing is just about perfect for a documentary about Studio 54; Rubell died of AIDS in 1989, and Schrager and the staff included here—doormen, bartenders, dancers, etc—aren’t getting any younger. Though perhaps not as groundbreaking as the club it chronicles, Studio 54 is nevertheless an interesting, entertaining look at an indulgent era and the place that defined it.
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