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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Studio 54 ****

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

Country: USA

The name ‘Studio 54’ is seeped in modern legend. The world-famous nightclub, where the rich and famous hung out with the fey and fabulous, was only open for 33 months but somehow managed to capture the imaginations of an entire generation of partygoers and become synonymous with a halcyon moment in Western history. But the true story about the rapid rise and rapid fall of the nightclub and its owners is far from idyllic. They burned bright, burned fast and burned out; all of which is explored in this new documentary.

Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell were childhood friends from Brooklyn. Together, they decided to open a nightclub in an unfashionable area in Manhattan, converting an old theatre but using its internal theatrical design to create a nightly spectacle, changing week on week to create a truly unique night-time experience. Its launch was hugely popular and immediately Schrager and Rubell found themselves two of the most socially powerful people in the city, picking and choosing who could be let through the doors of the most sought-after venue in USA.

It became the hang-out of celebrities, with Liza Minelli, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Truman Capote rubbing shoulders with LGBT people and disco dancing divas. Rubell explains that what made the club unique was not that it let in the rich and powerful, but that it mixed together the most fabulous people it could find. But with a door policy based entirely around who you knew and what you wore, the novelty of the most exclusive night-spot in New York quickly wore off as people demanded to know why they spent night after night waiting outside and still being refused entry.

While it’s really clear to see from the outset the reasons for Studio 54’s success, it is also apparent that both its rise and fall are inexorably linked to the faces behind the club. Schrager is a wildly charismatic extrovert, schmoozing with the guests and doing just about anything to obtain publicity. But behind the scenes, Rubell is quietly ensuring the financial success of the club, propping up the hedonistic fun-palace with a firm hand on its tiller. However, with issues with the liquor license, the books not wholly adding up (or even slightly adding up) and Schrager providing drugs for his legions of glitterati followers, the Jenga tower of Studio 54’s destruction was getting higher and progressively more precarious.

As with many films about flash-in-the-pan historical moments, we know from the outset that the glamour will be short-lived. The tales of decadence and profligacy can only end in disaster and it’s pretty clear from the opening credits just where its destruction will come from. Narratively, there’s nothing monumental about this film, but what makes it such an interesting piece is the way it lifts the lid on the club’s iconoclasm. It is startling to realise that a legendary institution was so short-lived; its cultural significance is still felt to this day, but it was only in operation for two and a half years. Studio 54 was the pinnacle of the disco moment; its name synonymous with an American musical movement. Imagine what it could have been if it had lasted longer! Or, like the icons who die at the height of their fame, is its legend propagated due to being so short-lived?

While the club was absolutely of its time (I don’t think anything more 70s has ever actually existed) it’s easy to see its widespread appeal, if only for its sheer scale. This was a super-club, where people could be whomever they wanted to be and do whatever they wanted to do, even if just for a night. With Schrager himself gay, the door policy actively encouraged LGBT people, with drag queens and

club kids an important part of its identity. It’s basement was an “anything goes” dark room and in this short window before the AIDS Crisis, anything really was going.

Of course just like those kept outside at the time, there will be people who negate the significance of the nightclub both historically and culturally. However, just like the Kabaret clubs of 1930s Berlin and Carnaby Street in 1960s London, there is no doubt that Studio 54 was the absolute pinnacle of a cultural moment. It wasn’t for everyone; nor did it try to be, but for those initiated in its mythology, this was Shangri-La. And while this documentary exposes the club’s mechanisms for what they were, the pizzazz of what made Studio 54 what it was is still very much present.


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