“In a club it’s all about capturing the moment.” And Studio 54 certainly did that at the height of Disco in the late seventies. The brainchild of college buddies Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, who modelled the club on The Loft and Paradise Garage among others, Studio 54 was all about image and vibe, tapping into Disco’s penchant for exhibitionism. Converting an old opera theatre, which was used by CBS, Schrager and Rubell spared no expense in remodelling and opened the club in Manhattan, 1977. Three years later the duo were forced to sell and were incarcerated. Director Matt Tyrnauer gleefully fills in the gaps of this Icarus cautionary tale…
With Rubell having passed on (he died of complications arising from AIDS in 1989) it’s left to a hoarse Schrager to do the heavy lifting interview-wise (he’s joined occasionally by regulars, publicists, promoters, and staff), who confesses he preferred anonymity and would rarely be seen mixing with the celebrities that Studio 54 was famous for. Rubell, on the other hand, loved the fame, the fortune. the drugs and spending nights on the dancefloor. Celebrities rolled up. The music bomped (the soundtrack is a wonderful mixture of standard Disco hits and more obscure tunes). Money was stacked and skimmed. The young owners (Rubell was 33, Schrager was only 29) revelled in the coverage: Studio 54 was the place to be. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got in for free, the other Stones had to pay. Doormen were offered sex in return for admission.
But resentment towards the club grew: The ‘Disco Sucks’ movement began, it became harder and harder to get in (there was a strict criteria for the doormen to adhere to) and Rubell began to brag about the amount of money the club was making, drawing attention from the Federal government and the IRS. Forced to shut for not having a liquor licence, the IRS discovered a skimming scam where only a fraction of the takings were declared (with 80% skimmed at one point, one interviewer remarks, “They were pigs about it.”). Rubell and Schrager, despite the employment of tough lawyer Roy Cohn (Tyrnauer’s next project is a documentary on this fascinating man), were sent to prison.
The documentary is an embarrassment of riches footage-wise. Tyrnauer doesn’t know what to do with himself with the amount of photos and grainy video footage at his disposal and so he puts them all in; moving from one to another creates the kind of heady energy the club itself boasted: There’s Dolly Parton kissing a horse. There’s Warhol. And here’s Michael Jackson, hauled in front of the camera during an impromptu Rubell interview to give a glowing testimonial. Jackson and the other celebrities gush about being able to be free once inside the doors. It was a place that allowed the gay community to be open.
A precursor to the hedonistic clubs that dominated nightlife in early nineties Britain, Studio 54 is a fascinating document of a time and a place.