In the wake of 70s fashion regurgitation, legendary night club Studio 54 gets a timely re-visit in this new titular Dogwoof documentary by director Matt Tyrnauer. Studio 54 investigates the phenomenon of this decadent super club that became culturally influential not only in terms of how people partied but also its effect on music, fashion, art, celebrity as well as aided in breaking social taboos.
The documentary is a pastiche of talking heads, TV news clips, interview footage and newspaper headlines assembled together in a chronoligcally guided tour though the club’s successful history, from its launch in 1977 all the way to the public backlash and eventual closure three years later. All seen through the lens of its two creators, Brooklyn childhood-friends-come-New-York-hustlers, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. Two figures who couldnt be more polar opposites; Rubell was a closeted egocentric extrovert, literally life the life and soul of New York nightlife, and Schrager a guarded introvert, whose business acumen and innovative thinking remained tightly behind the scenes.
The film includes an in-depth interview with Schrager gives the documentary a nod to its authenticity. Rubell died of HIV related illness in 1989, so we mostly get a sense of him through interviews with him and footage. Schrager seems to have morphed himself from a suave young creative type into looking and sounding like an extra from the Sopranos. Seemingly he's opened up with age as his remarkably frank in his account of events, confessing to the way they stashed away undeclared income, their drug-taking, their brushings with the mafia and consequently the police, which resulted in them going to jail for embezelment. Post prison, the two would carry on working with each other, opening another super club the conceptual Palladium as well as ventures into the boutique hotel business.
The success of the club, according to the various talking heads, was the timing and exclusivity, the latter would also be conducive to its demise. As explained in the film “the invention of the pill and the advent of Aids – and just as the age of celebrity was about to begin”. The presence of celebrities coupled with the long queues outside and the selective process of face control, made the club highly desirable. Regularly frequented by the likes of Any Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Sylvester Stallone to name a few. However, there was little if no mention however of the then New York man-about-town Donald Trump.
The club was praised for providing a safe haven for those at the time on the fringes of society; the LGBTQ+ community, transgender people or the numerous freaks and geeks of New York night life. Patrons were encouraged to put their preconceptions to one side when entering. This liberal attitude was further extended onto other areas such as the rife unconcealed sexual activity and drug use. Simultaneously though it excluded a whole bunch of New York population who were not deemed right for the club. Rubell would handpick individuals from a sea of people who were endlessly waiting outside; obviously judging them at face value whether it be their look, attitude or class.
Studio 54 unfortunatley doesn’t give us anything we havent heard before, no sensational revelations or insider gossip, and because of this after a certain point it feels rarther stale. Considering there has been countless of filmic tributes made throughout the years, the topic may now have reached its saturation point. Still its a stimulating watch and it does keep you engaged throughout, attributed to the notoriety of the subject matter, the visual imagery of the 70s disco era as well as the colourful personal stories of the interviewees who experienced the club first-hand.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_
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