Monday, January 18, 2021

Studio 54 (2018)

Here's a nice documentary account of the fabled late-'70s disco mecca of New York City—its spectacular rise and fall in a span of time less than three years. I didn't know much more about Studio 54 than what I learned from The Last Days of Disco—hard to get in, quite sparkly on the inside, and thrilling music that plays plays plays. I learned for the first time, for example, that it was designed and built mostly by crews more accustomed to working in Broadway and other theater productions. The club operated, amazingly, without a liquor license for the first six months, getting by on a continuous series of one-day catering permits until finally busted (there's an implication here that much of the club's troubles were due to jealous competitors ratting them out every chance). The club then operated, even more amazingly, without serving liquor at all for the better part of another year, making do on its reputation until it secured the license. The place was still packed and people turned away on the regular, of course. The club welcomed people of all colors and sexual orientations, prizing celebrities above all others, followed by varying inscrutable scales of the fashionable and attractive. The two founders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, were college friends and remained friends through thick and thin, a touching aspect of this story, where greed ultimately brought everything down. Young and still somewhat naïve about business, and significantly drunk on their own success, Rubell, Schrager, and other principals skimmed an outrageous amount of cash from the nightly takes, stashing it in the basement of the club. As with Al Capone, it was tax evasion that finally brought them down, though they were also vulnerable to drug and other charges. They turned to Roy Cohn and various New York legal heavyweights to mitigate the fallout but could not escape prison. Unlike Capone, Rubell and Schrager as depicted here were more good-hearted, muddling through doing their time and then reinventing themselves as upscale hoteliers. They were as innovative in the hospitality industry as they had been with a New York nightclub. In 1989 Rubell died at age 45 of complications related to AIDS although, sadly, he did his best to suppress public knowledge of his diagnosis. Schrager lives on, giving generous and open interviews here, and in 2017 earned a pardon from President Obama that wiped his record clean. It's a great story, enjoyably told in this documentary. The only thing I would wish for, and I'd say there's plenty of time for it with a running time of 98 minutes, is more music and more archival footage of scenes from inside the club in its heyday.

1 comment:

  1. Life ain't nothin' but a party isn't sustainable, of course, often ends tragically, if not pathetically, but I do find something fascinating about efforts to pull it off. Liked the forensics quality to this doc and the strange, sad dignity of the surviving owner, Schrager.