Matt Tyrnauer’s most recent film tells the unvarnished story of Studio 54 – Unseating all the things you thought you knew.
The pulsating documentary based on one of our country’s biggest cultural phenomenon’s, projects a common ground between ecstasy and anguish… all while illustrating the passion and trepidation of the famed Disco run by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell.
Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) does a remarkable job soaking this sensational doc with interviews involving Schrager and various other Studio 54 insiders, as opposed to giving way to the hundreds, if not thousands of celebrities who once graced the worlds most famous dance floor. Conveying the ultimate experience that will bring you back to the world’s most renowned disco haven – Studio 54 will venture well with all those who lived during its existence, and the younger generations that wish they had.
It’s been nearly 41 years since Studio 54 first opened its doors, and yet, it has remained the gold-standard for any business tackling the chattel that comes with nightlife. The decades since it’s closing after a blissful 33 months have been permeated with remembrance on what it was like to be there.
For those of us who never got the thrilling opportunity (I probably would have been considered “bridge & tunnel” and not let in even if I tried), here, we’re able to experience the phenomenon first hand – As we’re thrust into the world of love, music, understanding, and the hysteria that acquiesced it all.
“I am finally letting myself discuss the short-lived club because it doesn’t sting as much” Scharger says early on. Believing that, with partner Rubell long dead, he’s the only one who can tell the full…real story. Also interviewed along with Schrager is the club’s silent partner Jack Dushey, following testimonies from the club’s doorman, its practically famous promoters, close friends, and even those who were a part of the lighting design and crew.
The captivating tale of two Jewish hustlers from Brooklyn, who opened and operated the greatest club known on earth starts when the two meet at Syracuse University. Upon graduating, Rubell aspires to open a chain of steak restaurants, while Schrager receives his juris doctor degree. When things don’t take off as swiftly as they hoped, both then decide to seek their fortune creating the perfect nightclub.
Rubell who was gay (but never fully out of the closet) had deep understanding of what was becoming. The Nightclub Era – Beginning in the early 1970’s as a gay subculture, Rubell knew this would blow up big.
Opening their first club in Queens (Enchanted Garden), they aimed to bring in locals while studying the emerging disco scene, trying to figure all the different ways they could stand out. For those not around during this period in time, you get a quick history lesson on the origins of disco. The film tells us it was music created by black artists and embraced early by gay men… fostering an inclusive vibe in clubs, which soon drew the likes of fashion models… as well as the straight men that wanted to sleep with them.
Soon after Enchanted Garden’s opening, a light bulb went off when Schrager and Rubell discovered a former CBS television studio on W 54th St & 8th Ave. Albeit a neighborhood far from desirable with countless abandoned buildings and consistent crime, they basked in the opportunity to create what they thought could be NYC’s greatest dance venue.
The colossal undertaking begins once they soon hire Tony-Award-winning lighting designers. Schrager states they were the first club to ever do such a thing, as DJ’s previously had always been responsible for that element.
One hilarious moment during the interviews is when you come to find out they neglected obtaining a liquor license during the initial build out. With only a short period of time until the anticipated first night, their idea of a quick-fix was to forge a catering company, using an array of one-night catering permits to sell drinks at the bar.
The club made a monumental impression the moment they opened, galvanized by such grandiose intrigue – everybody in town soon wondered what it was like inside Manhattan’s new hub of pleasure and debauchery. An electrifying job using extensive photos and boundless film clips, throughout, make you feel as if you’re immersed in that of joyous dancers, elated fun-loving patrons, and constant euphoria.
As Studio 54’s fame quickly spread to uncharted heights, management became infamous for their selectiveness at the door. Rubell and his quirky staff wanted nothing short of a mixed bag filled with the gorgeous, the famous, and the bizarre.
Once inside, they tell us how everyone was treated equal. A “safe” place like none other, giving way to a paradise for gay men – As its foundation was laid with embrace and acceptance. Studio 54 became the mainstream cathedral of glamour and appreciation, bolstered by the many celebrity-regulars in what became a temple of imagination.
Rubell, who loved nothing more than cozying up to his celebrity customers, satisfied himself with as many drugs as he supplied. As the temple of imagination grew into a bit of a reckless melee, it was evident him and Schrager were in way over their heads. What then ensues is the result of previous foreshadow, while the film takes a jagged turn showcasing what became their ultimate demise.
We come to find out Rubell and Schrager were skimming ample amounts of cash from the till, and believe it or not… were actually keeping fastidious records of every last dollar they “stole.” So in 1978, when an army of IRS agents raid the club… they find more than enough evidence to pursue them each for tax evasion. Even with their high-priced mafia entwined lawyer Roy Cohn, the two still couldn’t escape consequence, both winding up in federal prison for a total of 13 months (Still best friends & partners, of course).
After their subsequent release, the overall tone in the film shifts mightily – Jutting a mood parallel to one that recognizes the end of an era. Although with increasing anti-disco sentiment looming, the two refused to stop in their tracks – Soon opening mega-club Palladium to much fanfare and success.
A blue-print for an idea involving boutique hotels then follows, but Rubell dies of AIDS prior to their hotel project becoming the empire it is today. It was that day on July 25th 1989, when the world lost a man who, along with Schrager, turned his imagination into a reality. A reality which became a cultural phenomenon. And a phenomenon that helped turn the wheels of the acceptance and equality we still strive for today.
By Brandon Colón