Film Review: ‘Studio 54’

Matt Tyrnauer's thrilling and definitive documentary captures the delirium — and the dark side — of the legendary New York disco.

Studio 54
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival/Bettmann Archive

There’s a memorable moment in “Studio 54,” Matt Tyrnauer’s thrilling and definitive documentary about the fabled disco haven, in which the camera glides through the gilded lobby of the old theater the club was built in, approaching the doors, the beat throb-throb-throbbing in the muted distance. The camera then pushes through the doors and onto the dance floor, the music — it’s Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” the greatest disco song ever recorded — now turned up and transcendent, and for a moment we feel like we’re melting into the elation of the writhing horde.

Studio 54 opened 41 years ago (on April 26, 1977) and remained open for just 33 months, and the decades since have been filled with starry-eyed testimonials to what it was like to be there. For those of us who never went (and probably couldn’t have gotten in if we tried), “Studio 54” lets you taste a bit of the ecstasy. Tyrnauer, the director of “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” is a next-generation classicist who, in this movie, assembles photographs and amateur film footage with kaleidoscopic dexterity. The film shows you the club from every angle, and seems to be gawking at every patron. It puts us right inside.

The experience of going to Studio 54 has become a mythology in our culture, and the sprinkle of you-had-to-be-there glitter that clings to the descriptions by insiders is part of that mythology. We got to go to disco heaven, and you didn’t! The movie preserves the aura of Studio 54 as a swank pulsating Valhalla, with a ceiling miles above the dance floor, that fused sound and light and drugs and erotic daydream and the imagination of anyone who suddenly felt like they could be whoever they wanted to be.

Tyrnauer re-creates the pleasure-soaked majesty, but he also demystifies Studio 54 by showing us the nuts and bolts of how it was built, how it operated, and how it was consumed by the flames of scandal. The club was famously created by two men, Steve Rubell (who died, in 1989, of complications resulting from AIDS) and Ian Schrager, and Tyrnauer has gotten Schrager, for the first time since the place closed down, to tell its story from his chastened but still rather astonished point of view. It’s the fascinating tale of how two Jewish hustlers from Brooklyn built and ran a dream palace.

A lot of club owners are sleazy, but Rubell and Schrager had a hungry chutzpah more shameless — and fearless — than that of anyone around them. The two met as students at Syracuse, where Rubell was already a glad-hander who schmoozed everyone on campus. Schrager, though an introvert by comparison, had a father who worked for the Mob and inherited some of his scavenging street instinct. After graduating, Rubell tried to start a chain of steak restaurants, and Schrager became a lawyer, but the two caught the fever of the new money culture. Rubell, who was gay (but never fully out of the closet), grasped that the nightclub era, which began in the early ’70s as a gay subculture, would blow up big.

They opened a club in Queens (and one in Boston, which the film doesn’t mention), and when it came time to move their business into Manhattan, they saw the light as soon as they walked into the abandoned theater on W. 54th St., which had been built in 1927 as the Gallo Opera House. (In between, it became the New Yorker Theatre and then CBS’ Studio 52.) It was the grandeur of that vacant space — the stage, the balcony, the impossibly tall and ornate ceiling — that inspired their vision of the most epic nightclub ever created. Yet even they had no idea what Studio 54 would become. How could they have? The club was about something that had never existed: an obsessive new celebrity culture, and, more than that, a new ideal that said that everyone could be a star. (In the basement, the club also turned into an on-and-off orgy.)

Schrager, now 71, comes off as a benign fallen weasel, with a speech impediment that makes him sound like Buddy Hackett, and he relates Studio 54’s history with an air of bewildered awe. He’s still astounded by what they did, and what they thought they could get away with. He and Rubell were cunning showmen who spent $400,000 to build the club in six weeks — though their accountant, seated next to Schrager, reminds him that they owed creditors three or four hundred thousand more. If you adjust for inflation, that would be around $3 million today: a lot of money to open a nightclub.

After all that, they didn’t even bother to get a liquor license. Studio 54 operated without one for months (instead, they applied for and got daily catering passes), and that’s a sign of what a seat-of-the-pants empire it was. Logistically, however, it was a baroque fantasy erected from the ground up, like a coke-spoon version of the set of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance.” The lights and sets and (eventually) a gliding balcony turned the place into a work of art with moving parts that you, the clubgoer, were now at the center of.

Many of the people interviewed by Tyrnauer recall Studio 54 as a magically “safe” place, and what they mean, by and large, is that it was an unprecedented vision of paradise for gay men. It’s not just that they were accepted and embraced (as was true in gay nightclubs). It’s that the waves of celebrity — Andy! Mick! Bianca! Truman! Liz! Elton! Michael! — turned Studio 54 into a mainstream sanctuary of flamboyance where not just the presence but the imagination of gay men could flower and fuse, out in the open, with everything else.

Yet to create that sanctuary, Studio 54 became a privileged space — a private club, essentially, in which people’s faces and threads were their membership keys. Tyrnauer doesn’t back off from the uglier side of the club’s door policy, the infamous nightly ritual of the hoi polloi standing out there on the curb, stranded — forever ­— on the wrong side of the velvet rope. Early on, Rubell would be out there himself, a clammy reptile playing beauty-contest judge (we see footage of him telling a guy he can’t enter because “You’re not shaved!”). What, exactly, does it say about Studio 54 that Tony Manero wouldn’t have gotten in? Sorry, but what this looks like 40 years later — a celebration of the entitlement of beauty and money — is an early rehearsal for the elite-vs.-everyone-else America that we have today.

The club got launched into the stratosphere the night it opened, driven by a supernova of buzz, and from that moment it was always about flying too close to the sun. Rubell and Schrager ran the place like a couple of pashas, skimming so much money off the nightly take that it was only a matter of time before the IRS came down on them. They were raided a year and a half after the club opened; from that moment, the writing was on the wall. (Even their fixer lawyer, Roy Cohn, couldn’t save them.) The two went to prison for tax evasion but remained partners, teaming up afterwards to open Palladium. Nile Rogers recalls that the club party they threw the night before they went to jail was as recklessly incandescent a blowout as the opening night.

Schrager likens his relationship with Rubell to a marriage, thought if that’s so, it’s one that the film doesn’t explore deeply enough. Another omission: It might have been nice to hear from one or two of the bold-face names, so that we learned what going to Studio 54 meant to them. Those flaws aside, “Studio 54” imprints us with an indelible portrait of the nightclub that became the apotheosis of the disco era: the freedom, the excess, the aristocracy, the pulsating pop glory. It was like a slice of ancient Rome on W. 54th St., so bedazzled by its delirium that it now looks almost innocent.

Film Review: ‘Studio 54’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), January 21, 2018. Running time: <strong>98 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: An Altimeter Films, Passion Pictures production. Producers: Matt Tyrnauer, John Battsek, Corey Reeser. Executive producers: Molly Thompson, Robert Sharenow, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Andrew Ruhemann.
  • Crew: Director: Matt Tyrnauer. Camera (color, widescreen): Tom Hurwitz. Editor: Andrea Lewis.
  • With: Ian Schrager, Bob Colacello.