Watching this outstanding film is an exhilarating, immersive experience. As the music pulsates, the heady atmosphere of the iconic nightclub pours out from the screen, drawing you in to its glittering sanctum.
Matt Tyrnauer’s (Valentino: The Last Emperor) documentary chronicles the rise and fall of Studio 54 and its creators: two Jewish best friends from Brooklyn, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. Tyrnauer evokes the era with rare and unseen footage as well as compelling interviews with people involved in its inception and operation, including waiters, doormen, makeup artists and family members. Rubell died in 1989 from AIDS related complications and Schrager, speaking about the club for the first time in forty years, recounts his story with candour, admitting that, “It doesn’t sting how it used to.”
Post Vietnam, pre-AIDS New York was a dangerous, corrupt and sleazy city but, at the same time, a thriving disco club culture emerged. Studio 54, New York’s mid-town, infamous nightclub captured this zeitgeist and would come to epitomise the excess, creativity and bohemianism of the late 1970s. In its short 33-month history, Studio 54 was the epicentre of hedonism, a magnet for celebrities, drug-fuelled partying and casual sex. But inside its vast, theatrical space it was also a place of freedom and total acceptance. According to musician, producer and Studio 54 regular, Nile Rogers, everybody was fine with everybody for the first time: gay, straight, trans, drag queen, black, white, young or old. “Its diversity created combustible energy,” describes Schrager.
Schrager and Rubell met as students in college. Rubell was an extrovert who knew how to schmooze: by contrast, Schrager was the introvert, “the invisible man.” Schrager’s father, known as Max the Jew, worked for the mob but the impact this may have had on him is unexplored - one of the few weaknesses in the film.
After graduating, Rubell had gone into the restaurant business and Schrager became a lawyer but the two set their sights on opening the ultimate nightclub. Ambitious, smart and buoyed by chutzpah and arrogance, they put it together - on the site of a former CBS TV studio - in just six weeks. It happened so fast that, for months, they didn’t even bother to apply for a liquor licence. From the moment it opened, Studio 54 was a stratospheric success but as it gained in fame and popularity, its door policy got tougher and more exclusive. Rubell would turn people away if they did not look right or wore the wrong clothes. Polyester shirts were a no.
They ran the business flying by the seat of their pants and Schrager appears amazed at what they got away with. Even when the IRS raided with allegations that cash and drugs were stashed in the club, they did not realise the seriousness of the situation. Eventually, the two men went to prison for tax evasion.
By the time of their release in 1981, the world that Studio had inhabited was lost, destroyed by AIDS and the onset of Reaganism. Briefly, though, Studio 54 mattered like no other nightclub and Tyrnauer has portrayed New York’s defining cultural moment in disco history with passion and poignancy.
Studio 54 will be released in cinemas June 15 and on demand from August 6