Matt Tyrnauer’s disco doc captures the heady, hedonistic spirit of the ’70s superclub and the pain of the comedown.
Footage from within Studio 54 – the most iconic nightclub ever – glitters like a mirror ball. Some scenes in Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary will set your heart soaring like an amphetamine rush: yes, that really is a squeaky-voiced, pimple-faced Michael Jackson talking to the camera about escapism. It’s 39 years since Manhattan’s disco-era club threw open its doors, and yet in one scene in you’ll feel like you’re there for opening night. As the camera swoops through a glitzy corridor into the club, and as the muffled soundtrack explodes at 120BPM, you almost feel the thrill of stepping onto the hallowed dance floor.
Reflections from the founding team on the glitz, glamour and seedier side of things collectively tell the club’s story, which rises like the crescendo of this film’s searing ’70s soundtrack. The scale of nightly theatrical shows, the money pumped through the venue, and co-founder Steve Rubell’s unique modes of hospitality (dispensing Quaaludes from a duffel coat) are all almost as jaw-dropping as the roster of stars who made it past the velvet rope. As well as celebs, the club championed figures marginalised in society, but it also had a door policy that discriminated against those who weren’t beautiful or fabulous enough. And so, with the club’s fame came the backlash – its inimitable brand of hedonism almost seems doomed from the offset.
Studio’s other founder Ian Schrager (now a hotel tycoon in his seventies) is depicted as a behind-the-scenes character in comparison to Rubell. But now he talks to camera with a twinkle in his eye, particularly as he dances around questions on the tax evasion that helped shut the club down and eventually put him and Rubell behind bars. The partying may have stopped, but a youthful mischievousness is endearingly present.
Yet so many of this world’s characters – including Rubell – aren’t around to tell their story. The Aids crisis rippled through New York’s LGBT+ community in the years that followed the club’s closure. It really was the end of an era and the pain for Schrager is still palpable. Luckily, it helps make this documentary a poignant portrait of friendships cemented through good times. Despite the spotlight of ‘Studio 54’ settling mostly on Brooklyn chancers Schrager and Rubell, it’s clear that the regulars were those who made the venue so legendary. And while iconic scenes of Bianca Jagger on horseback may be more widely documented, flashes of the barely-dressed, beautiful and damned unknowns are far more captivating. It seems everybody was somebody at Studio 54.
Cast and crew
Although Studio54 had opened after I started my nightcrawling in downtown underground clubs like theGallery in 1976,I never had the occasion to go there until my first boyfriend took me with some of his charmed flight attendant friends from PanAm in 1980.Even though I considered myself an experienced nightclubber,the press on Studio54,its celebrities,paparazzi,uptown swagger,and discriminating doorpolicy made me nervous about approaching the unmanageable crowd at the 54th St. entrance begging to get in.I had no patience to be kept waiting outside of a club when I was already high on drugs and just wanted to dance,or the self-esteem to have made the trip uptown to be rejected.But being gay had panache at Studio54,as I found mattered in all future networking in NYC.SteveRubell was not at the door that night,but as soon as the four of us W.Village styled gay men emerged from the cab,the doorman lead us by his finger to the opening in the velvet rope that took us into the sanctioned halls of the historical&now infamous theater on 54thSt.I felt very validated by the instant approval of the club based on the assumption that I sucked dick,probably danced&dressed satisfactorily,took drugs,and would know how to behave around the celebrities.As I walked along the long elegant carpeted and mirrored hallway that lead from 54thSt. to the vortex of the club deep in the center of this midtown city block,a stage with theatrical backdrops changed images while multiple light systems like space ships dropped from above,suspending themselves inches from the landscape of the dancefloor before returning to the ceiling like scenery on a movie set.The lights from these extraterrestrial lanterns flashed across the faces of the most beautiful&famous people in the world,dancing with each other like it was the happiest night of their lives and everyone was the best of friends.It was Shangri La.It was all so staged.The authentic theater mezzanine overhanging the dancefloor was,like in any theater,steep stairs and theater watch the production of Studio54 from above like a Broadway show.Anybody&everybody on that dancefloor could feel like a star on a stage giving the performance of a lifetime.There was a large circular bar that kept the crowd that was afraid to dance alcoholically impaired.They would hang onto the bar and their expensive cocktails all night.It was the first time I had ever been to a disco in NYC that had a cash bar.I was too poor and timid to approach the bar to buy a drink at Studio54 for the few years I was able to go there until it closed.I was no longer a dancer for hire at theGaietyMaleBurlesque with a disposable income.Now my life included the responsibilities of rent,student loans,bills,drugs,pets,and commuting to and from my domestic home in Brooklyn.My boyfriend and I would find a safe place to dance far from the lip of the dance floor at Studio54,while celebrities and show-offs would carry on in the VIP banquettes for the benefit of the photographers taking group celebrity photographs that circulated around the world the next day. BrookeShields,CherylTiegs,PeterAllen,MargaretTrudeau,&ElizabethTaylor all wanted press shots to let the public know that they were having a grand old-time at Studio54.My boyfriend&I found dancing around this publicly stunt was like being an extra on a movie set;moving in and out of camera range for a fleeting second while trying to look like we were normal active partygoers and not spectators.We saw more celebrity fauxpas that the cameras of the paparazzi never caught.We were fixtures to fill space safely and with grace,as we dressed,danced,and behaved in a non-threatening manner to the real stars of the club.We were backup dancers,extras,who never planned or aspired to be a star on this dancefloor.We were just happy to be there,watching CalvinKlein sulk around the corners,chasing after hot boys.Halston on his hands and knees searching for spilled pills.LizaMinelli pawning over whatever gay man she could attach herself to,and possibly marry.MichaelJackson acting absurdly timid,like a young black version of AndyWarhol.DianaRoss invading the DJ booth to get her star kick from grabbing a microphone to sing acapello over her disco mantra to love,“The Boss”.BiancaJaggar in the bathroom mirror frowning at her messy reflection.Celebrity narcissism,sexuality,drug addiction,vanity&insecurity performed live,for the Studio54 price of admission.I wrote about my overextended NYC disco experiences,dancing professionally&recreationally from 1976-2004,until I crashed&burned from the excesses of the lifestyle in my book Homo Go Man: a fairytale about a boy who grew up in discoland.