I kept my word last night by revisiting Matt Tyrnauer‘s Studio 54 at an opening-night gala for 2018 Outfest. It’s a fascinating, well-told tale — sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad — that invites you to really sink in to that mad Manhattan era (’77 to ’80) that was a real bacchanalian sweet spot — post-pill, pre-AIDS, sexual liberation and an abundance of quaaludes and cocaine.
As I was driving home it hit me why I’m so affected by Studio 54, above and beyond the nostalgia vibes. It’s because Tyrnauer’s strategy for the first hour or so is to give you a great contact high with the saga of Studio 54’s amazing success — the cinematic equivalent of dropping a Lemmon 714 on an empty stomach — and then abruptly shift into wistful melancholy as he relates how partners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager struck it rich only to see the whole thing collapse less than two years later.
Schrager recovered and went on to great success as a boutique hotelier; Rubell died of AIDS in 1989 at age 45.
On 4.26.77 Rubell and Schrager opened the legendary late-hours club — an immersive alternate-reality trip on West 54th near 8th Avenue. Studio 54 quickly became known for enforcing a brutal door-admission policy while at the same time passing through top-tier celebrities and allowing all kinds of hedonistic, wild-ass behavior once you got in (especially in that big dark balcony). They hit the cultural jackpot, revelling in bass-thromp music, mountains of cash and all kinds of druggy good times for a year and and two-thirds until New York State prosecutors and the IRS raided their offices in December ’78, and then filed tax-evasion and skimming charges the following summer.
The last third of Tyrnauer’s 98-minute film brings it all home. The mood of the film suddenly quiets down and shifts into “yeah, the success went to our heads and then we went to prison and then a few years later poor Steve died.” Almost anything having to do with loss tends to get me emotionally. Studio 54 is about striking it rich but lacking the wisdom or being too arrogant or wrecked to avoid dumb mistakes, and how recklessness and the overplaying of one’s hand leads where you might expect. The finale includes an admission from the now-72 year-old Schrager (who’d never consented to being interviewed about the Studio 54 saga until Tyrnaeur came along) that he and Rubell acted foolishly and that life is short but the pages turn regardless.
Why did Studio 54 get to me? Because I made a mistake or two when I was young and somewhat brash, and it took some time to correct or counter-balance them. Life is choices, whether rashly decided upon or not.