Studio 54 doc is a clear-eyed view of a notorious nightclub
Documentary on the rise and fall of the legendary New York disco. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. Opens Friday at Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema. 98 minutes. STC
Studio 54 was famous for being infamous.
The New York City nightclub, the subject of Matt Tyrnauer’s revealing doc Studio 54, was notorious as much for the multitudes it kept outside its doors as for the privileged few who partied within during the 33 months of its 1970s disco heyday.
Showboating co-owner Steve Rubell ruthlessly worked the velvet rope, allowing entry only to people whom he deemed sufficiently famous or beautiful. Among those turned away were members of the band Chic, whose 1978 disco hit “Le Freak” chronicled their shunning.
Among the favoured was Margaret Trudeau, estranged wife of Canada’s prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who shocked Canadians after she was photographed dancing at the club on the night her husband lost the 1979 federal election. She’s briefly glimpsed in archival news reports in the film, including an Italian gossip sheet report of her fling with tennis ace Vitas Gerulaitis, one of many scandalous matchups of the era.
Being outrageous was, of course, the raison d’être of Studio 54. Rubell and his low-key partner Ian Schrager, childhood buddies from Brooklyn, created the West 54th Street dance mecca in a matter of weeks in the spring of 1977, making canny use of TV and theatrical sets left over from the building’s previous incarnation as an opera house and later TV studio — Captain Kangaroo used to broadcast from what was then called CBS Studio 52.
The place was designed to be sensational and it was from day one, attracting the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Keith Richards, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury and future U.S. President Donald Trump and his first wife Ivana. Celebrities were “comped” — but not all of them; members of the Rolling Stones who weren’t Mick or Keith had to pay to get in.
Studio 54 also attracted unwelcome attention from New York liquor officials and federal tax sleuths, who would later bring additional infamy to the place when Rubell and Schrager were charged (and later jailed) due to multiple tax and conspiracy offences that included skimming $2.5 million from the club’s cash registers. The disco’s reputation as a drug den — a veritable snowstorm of cocaine blew through it — didn’t help the owners’ case before the courts, despite the battery of high-profile lawyers they hired to defend them.
Tyrnauer documents it all with journalistic rigour, building his film around the bittersweet memories of the reclusive Schrager — Rubell, seen and heard in archival footage, died from AIDS in 1989 — and those of former Studio 54 employees, publicists and patrons.
The latter group included Michael Jackson, viewed pre-surgery and pre-superstardom as a shy young pop singer circa 1978, raving about how exciting it was to dance there: “It’s where you come when you want to escape,” he tells an interviewer, as a star-struck Rubell looks on.
The look of the film is oddly more punk than disco. What few scenes we see of wild Studio 54 parties were filmed mainly on grainy and blurry 16mm and even 8mm celluloid. This was a time before everybody was carrying a digital video camera in their pocket or purse.
Schrager makes the claim that Studio 54 marked “the beginning of the age of celebrity,” a boast that’s hard to prove. But there’s no doubt he and Rubell worked the gossip press as hard as Rubell worked the velvet rope, paying for newspaper mentions of their famous guests.
Despite its Darwinian door policy, Studio 54 was refreshingly free of discrimination as to race, sexual orientation and attire — or non-attire, for those who dared to bare. Musician/producer Nile Rodgers, the co-founder of Chic, recalls that when he eventually did gain access to the club, and he was impressed by the inclusivity and diversity he witnessed therein.
“It felt like the first time people were non-judgmental,” Rodgers says — although even making it into Studio 54 meant you’d already been judged worthy by mercurial doorkeeper Rubell.
Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm