As unassuming and subtle as some of the 500-pound drag queens that pirouette through it, “SqueezeBox!” celebrates, with in-your-face insistence, its title nightclub, which existed (incongruously enough) during New York City’s Rudy Giuliani era, marrying rock ‘n’ roll to a gay sensibility. If everyone who claims to have gone there buys a ticket, doc could do healthy arthouse business.
What auds will find, however, is the same kind of pugnacious self-celebration that affects many nonfiction films about relatively obscure subjects — relentless, stentorian bombast about how important it is. Which only serves to make one think, maybe not.
SqueezeBox, a weekly ’90s rock ‘n’ roll party at Don Hill’s in Tribeca, purported to welcome everyone who didn’t have a problem with anyone else. As happens with fashion, music and film festivals, success eventually turned an insider’s rock rave into a tourist attraction. But while it was in its prime — as its champions tell us, and tell us — it was like the misbegotten offspring of Studio 54 and Circus Maximus.
Helmers Steve Saporito and Zach Shaffer (with Neal Pierce credited as co-director) do a decent job of tying SqueezeBox to its time, a period when Mayor Giuliani was “cleaning” up sex clubs and Disney-fying Times Square, and his lieutenant Rudy Washington was gleefully closing down Manhattan nightlife in an effort to reassure Staten Island voters. Socially, SqueezeBox was an act of defiance.
What doesn’t help sell the club’s status as a cultural landmark is the parade of bad performers who traipsed through it, and who seem to have been more notable for their sexuality and trash couture than for anything artistic. There are exceptions — the fact that John Cameron Mitchell workshopped “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at SqueezeBox gives it a certain claim to lasting fame. And Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) weighs in on why the club was such an incubator of talent.
But one senses that the filmmakers approached every interview — with photographer Bob Gruen, singer Debbie Harry, Mitchell, Jayne County, Don Hill — with the same questions, orquestion. And got the same answer: SqueezeBox was the greatest thing since the invention of the nipple piercing. In other words, it hurt a lot, and was maybe a little bit embarrassing.