Watching “Limelight,” about the rise and politically engineered fall of onetime Manhattan nightclub kingpin Peter Gatien, is like looking through a family album: If you’re in the family, you might be interested. Otherwise, helmer Billy Corben’s candy-hued docu is a fairly wobbly walk down a memory lane littered with feathers, leather and empty coke vials. Release by Magnolia will give the film considerable exposure, although interest will be limited, perhaps to certain neighborhoods in New York.
“Limelight” is named for the notorious nightclub Gatien established in an abandoned Episcopal church on Sixth Avenue; during the ’80s and ’90s, it proved a desanctified gateway for hip-hop, Ecstasy and a musical phenomenon imported from the U.K., raves. Lit up like a lava lamp (which is the wrong decade entirely), the film lays out how Gatien went on to open Palladium, Tunnel and Club USA, all cultural petrie dishes at a time of great social metamorphosis. Corben makes the point that all this came to a crashing end with the advent of Rudolph Giuliani, who, together with federal prosecutors, killed New York nightlife and made Gatien’s life a living hell.
Gatien, who was born in Canada (where he lost an eye playing hockey) and had clubs in Miami and Atlanta before opening the first Limelight in New York, is an engaging character, although he seems snakebitten by his years of prosecution and persecution. Others in the film include party promoter Michael Alig (played by Macaulay Culkin in the 2003 film “Party Monster”), who was eventually convicted in 1996 of killing a man known as Angel Melendez; and Michael Caruso, known as Lord Michael, who admits to having been involved not only in a massive Ecstasy trade but also kidnappings and assaults; others interviewed imply he committed a murder. Such are the film’s unreliable witnesses.
The prosecution of Gatien — who, the feds charged, was complicit in and benefited from the drug sales at in his clubs — is the best part of the film, especially since Corben, through his interviewees, establishes what a trumped-up case the government constructed (and lost). As unsavory as some of Gatien’s customers may have been, they were babes in the woods compared with some of his colleagues, whom the feds used as witnesses in their case. With the entertaining exception of journo Frank Owen, who covered the club scene for the likes of the Village Voice during the ’90s, there isn’t a trustworthy, agenda-free soul among them, including members of the Giuliani administration and all the lawyers involved. But this ultimately ends up hurting the movie: What the viewer wants is a voice (other than Owen’s) that might weigh in with some legal authority on the witchhunt being waged. No such figure appears.
Corben also tries too hard; in an effort to convince the viewer that Limelight and the black-eyepatch-wearing Gatien meant something, he fills the film with shaky-cam footage, news reports (some of which seem entirely suspect) and post-production trickery intended to entrance the ADD-afflicted. As if knowing he’s trading in a slippery form of nostalgia, the director pulls out all the stops to make “Limelight” visually echo the pre-AIDS, pre-herpes, pre-drug-law New York in which Gatien’s clubs flourished. Despite these attempts to simulate a heady drug experience, all the viewer will want is an aspirin.