I’m not a clubber or a party animal — far from it. The idea of throwing down $17 for a drink at some over-priced, hard-to-get-into, Shallow Hal hotspot fills me with distaste. I’d rather watch a Bluray or walk the streets of Manhattan or hop on the Yamaha for a late-night spin. But Matt Tyrnauer‘s Studio 54 (Zeitgeist, 10.5), a brilliant chronicle of the greatest and coolest nightclub of all time (and I mean going back to the era of ancient Rome), is so intoxicating that after my first viewing in Park City I was telling myself, “Hmm, maybe I could hit some cool club when I get back to Los Angeles.”
Studio 54 wasn’t just an immersive alternate-reality trip on West 54th near 8th Avenue — it was Shangrila. Swirling sounds, dancing until 2 am, possible sex, cocaine, nocturnal delights, quaaludes, drinks and that pounding thump-thump-BUHMP-BUHMP. Okay, calm down — this is 2018 and you work hard for the money. But oh, to have been a young buck in the summer of ’78 and get waved through by Steve Rubell himself and then run into the levitational coolios (rock stars, journalists, models, authors, actors, producers, politicians) in that cellar-level salon…sniff, snort, stop it, you’re dreaming.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Studio 54 is a fascinating, well-told tale — exciting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad — that invites you to really sink into a mad Manhattan era (mid ’77 to early ’80) that was a real bacchanalian sweet spot — post-pill, pre-AIDS, sexual liberation and an abundance of cocaine and quaaludes (and the operational assistance of the beloved Edlich Pharmacy).
A few weeks ago it hit me why I’m so affected by Studio 54, above and beyond the nostalgia. It’s because it uses a brilliant up-and-down narrative strategy that works as a metaphor for how briefly youth lasts and how suddenly the best of times can end, and how two crafty fellows — Rubell and Ian Schrager — foresaw and caught hold of a special hedonism in the air, a certain what-the-fuckness that happened at just the right time and in just the right way, and all under the cultural auspices of a somewhat prudish and puritanical peanut-farmer president.
And for the first time ever, Schrager actually pokes his head out, sits down and talks to Tyrnauer about the whole saga, start to finish, no holds barred.
Tyrnauer’s strategy for the first hour is to give you a great contact high with the saga of Studio 54’s success — the cinematic equivalent of dropping a Lemmon 714 on an empty stomach. Then it shifts into wistful melancholy as he relates how Rubell and Schrager struck it enormously rich only to see the whole thing collapse less than three years later. Their version of Studio 54 (it re-opened in 1981 under Mark Fleischman and continued for five years) launched in April of ’77 and closed in February ’80, right after which Schrader and Rubell went to jail for tax evasion.
Schrager recovered and went on to great success as a boutique hotelier; Rubell died of AIDS in 1989 at age 45.
Studio 54 quickly became known for enforcing a merciless door-admission policy (all the Tony Maneros were told “forget it…wrong haircut, wrong clothes, take a hike”) 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 and down in that cellar-level sanctum).
It wasn’t just Rubell and Schrager who hit the cultural jackpot, but everyone who managed to look right, dress right and get past the velvet rope. The whole Manhattan world of people who were happening in some way, shape or form — half-gay, half-straight, knew their way around and had a good game going — they all revelled in this place of pagan splendor and bass-thromp music and all kinds of druggy good times for a year and and two-thirds (33 months) until New York State prosecutors and the IRS raided their offices in December ’78. Tax-evasion and skimming charges were filed 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.”
Toward the end Rubell is questioned about how he feels about Schrager, and he says “he’s my best friend and I love him dearly.” Norma Kamali also speaks about their “love for and their bond with each other,” and when Ian talks about the house they bought together he speaks about his “devastating personal loss” and that his friendship with Rubell “was like a marriage, although neither of us were sure who was the husband and who was the wife.” Or words to that effect.
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.
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. Schrager and Rubell blew it, all right, but boy, did they catch hold of something before fate intervened.
2018 has been a double-header year for Tyrnauer, having released Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood last summer and now this. Cheers to a first-rate journalist and an excellent filmmaker at the top of his game.
Honestly? I’ve seen Studio 54 twice, and I could easily see it again.