Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 08, 2018 2:59 am 
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The rise and fall of the New York disco dream

This summer's two favorite documentaries were about Fred Rogers, whose TV show brought children kindness and home truths; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that sterling lifelong defender of women's rights. The fall brings us, in one film, two very different Americans, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. Best friends from Syracuse University, two Jewish guys from Brooklyn with intense shared business ambitious, they jointly created and ran Studio 54 during its brief but intense heyday. It was the most famous disco in the world.

After graduating from college, Rubell started an unsuccessful chain of steak restaurants, while Schrager became a lawyer, but these activities didn't satisfy them. Rubell, who was gay (though never fully out) and Schrager, who was straight, saw that the initially gay subculture of disco was about to become universal and huge, the explosion of "disco fever." This documentary shows the frenzied setting up of "the Studio" that led to its instant success. The creation of the venue was rushed, but also studied, including top designers and equipment but bypassing regulations.

The spectacular new venue immediately became the epicenter (for 33 months, 1977-1980) of late Seventies-early Eighties hedonism - a giant, spectacular discotheque and honey-pot for celebrities, beautiful people, gays, and hedonistic eccentrics - for whomever passed muster through looks, connections, or celebrity at the velvet-roped entrance. For nearly three years, Studio 54 became one giant non-stop party.

The disco was on the Upper West Side, on 54th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. For those who were denizens of the place in its less than three years of life till it was shut down for various illegalities and its two owners sent to jail, this film will no doubt awaken vivid memories. For the rest of us, it offers a record with many haunting glimpses. Studio 54 was the ultimate disco - the place where you danced the night away to the campy, catchy rhythms of disco music. It was exciting, it was grubby, it was for revelers, for music, for excitement, for sex, for drugs, the place to be.

One unique glimpse, a few minutes of film, shows us, up close, a young Michael Jackson beckoned into a little office by Steve Rubell. Michael, just beginning to be hyper-famous, with a big natural, before cosmetic surgery, says the club is his favorite place because here he feels "free." That seems to have been the general view. What happened was that Studio 54 both celebrated and insisted upon celebrity and beauty. But it also created an environment where anyone present became in themselves, just by being there, beautiful and special.

Partner Ian Schrager, who narrates this film in a running interview (Rubell died in 1989, at 45, from AIDS-related causes), says Studio 54 was not a club but "a social experiment." It became indeed a kind of safe, protected world unto itself. Here people could behave differently, where they could be "free." It was a place where everyone, once inside, felt equal and comfortable together. It was a place where the most riotous and libidinous behavior could be indulged in - sex, drug-taking, dancing, and having fun. In the film clips, everyone looks happy - except the people waiting outside, unable to get in.

Director Matt Tyrnauer (who previously made Valentino: The Last Emperor and Citizen Jane: Battle for the City) has done an admirable job of tracking down atmospheric, illustrative period footage and interviewing denizens of "Studio" and staff today to recount what it was like and what happened. These include the states attorney responsible for taking Schrager and Rubell to jail - and also forgiving Schrager more recently, when President Obama pardoned him. The reason for his exoneration is the shy Schrager's exemplary career since he disco days, as a hard-woking and highly successful businessman who now owns 38 veryelegant hotels worldwide.

Importantly, Studio 54 is a film that constitutes not just reminiscence for Schrager, but a long-delayed public confession. It's clear from the start that the club, though brilliantly conceived and designed to be spectacular - housed as it was in the high-ceilinged former Gallo Opera House, skillfully incorporating existing theatrical lighting of defunct CBS studios with unique attention to quality of sound and light for a disco, had bypassed numerous legal restrictions, even operating for six months at first without acquiring a permanent liquor license.

Things moved from the first much too fast. The place, skillfully promoted, on the cusp of a widening craze for the disco scene, was an instant success, mobbed on opening night, and made a huge profit (apparently all the "take" was in cash), and the crew running things - Schrager, Rubell and their accountant, began skimming off not just a small, safe percentage but a whopping eighty percent of the take. A disgruntled ex-employee reported the misbehavior. The chief lawyer engaged to defend the Studio was the notorious Roy Cohn. (He died, like Rubell, from complications of AIDS, but three years sooner.) When stopped by authorities, they'd skimmed $2.5 million.

Part - the most painful part - of Schrager's confession to the camera is not just his knowledge of the skimming and shared complicity, but the ignominious fact that after their conviction, he and Rubell turned around and "ratted" on other discos with similar misbehaviors, turning state's witness to gain early release from jail because they couldn't stand being locked up.

Heedless and morally flawed though they all were, the partners, especially Rubell, emerge as master revelers who loved their work and their clientele. The institution's dominant party-craze is symbolized by the way they even staged a giant "celebration" at Studio 54, bigger than the one they had held on opening night, on the eve of their incarceration. It is striking to observe, what we might remember from publicity of the time (photos in Interview, for instance), how Rubell was at the center of things every night, beaming, number one host and party boy, everybody's friend, greasing the social wheels, doling out Quaaludes freely and wearing a giant padded coat packed with cocaine, which he also distributed free. Rubell had more fun than anybody. But the fun couldn't last, even if it was great while it lasted.

There were many regulars, famous and not: the place was addictive. A fabulous core included Bianca Jagger, the fashion designer Halston (who died of AIDS-related Kaposi's Sarcoma in 1990), Andy Warhol, Mihail Baryshnikov, a few others: but in the glittering film clips that illustrate this documentary, many other celebrity-clusters are glimpsed, as well as oddball unknowns accepted as regulars, - plus the omnipresent waiters and busboys, young men clad only in gym shorts.

In documenting Studio 54, Matt Tyrnauer is of course chasing a will-o'-the-wisp. We who were never there can only imagine, plugging into memories perhaps, of the magic of other, smaller, less famous disco nightclubs, what this wild place was like. Seeing it all through Ian Schrager's eyes, the memory is bitter-sweet. (For a cool, sardonic evocation of the era and the place, watch Whit Stillman's droll Last Days of Disco.) But the evanescent proceedings are anchored by the solidity of Schrager, without whose understated, yet frank account there would be no story, or any point in telling it. There is bravery and his swallowing of pride in the telling. And the telling was worth doing. This is a rare slice of social history. More than once here, the thrill is captured. And what a thrill it was! (See also Owen Gleiberman's enthusiastic review for Variety.)

David Byrne video of Studio 54 vignettes.

Studio 54, 98 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018; seven other festivals. US theatrical release begins 5 Oct. 2018 at IFC Center, NYC, and elsewhere 12 Oct. .


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