Certain elements of Matt Tyrnauer’s Studio 54 remain consistent throughout the documentary. The wattage of the club’s regulars. The bravado of its owners. The hipness of the cultural moment it captured. But mostly you look at the photos and footage of its dancing clientele and suspect this comment was true for the bulk of them: “I was so high on drugs I really didn’t realize what was going on.”
That oblivion was the draw of Studio 54, a New York discotheque that solidified its renown in only 33 months of existence, from 1978 to 1980. According to one of its infamous co-owners, Steve Rubell, everyone was “tired of being serious” after Vietnam and Watergate. Another commentator points out that the club popped up “between the invention of the pill and the advent of AIDS.” Trans and gay people were frequent patrons, with second co-owner Ian Schrager claiming everyone “felt safe.” There’s a clip of Michael Jackson saying it was a place where you could forget your problems.
Rubell and Schrager couldn’t forget their problems, however, which were huge and of their own making. Studio 54 claims to be the first time the blemished backstory of the club has been told, with Schrager and others associated with it doing the honors. (Rubell, who had AIDS, died in 1989.) The lack of a liquor license was one issue; the owners simply got daily catering permits that allowed them to serve alcohol as they waited to become legit, but they had been cut off. A bigger sin was tax evasion, with the pair skimming the books to the tune of $400,000. The feds found cash and drugs hidden in the club, and Rubell and Schrager went to jail, though their sentences were shortened once they ratted out other clubs that had been taking some off the top, too.
Schrager provides the bulk of the commentary here, and it’s fun to relive the beginning and heydey of Studio 54 through his memories. He’s a charming host. But when he’s recounting the criminal part of its history, you want to throttle him for being so stupid. As the prosecutor in the case points out, Rubell and Schrager were skimming close to 80 percent of the club’s profits: “They were really pigs about it.” And their machismo was as legendary as their place, with Rubell frequently bragging about how much money they made and the pair even throwing themselves a party the night before they went to jail. “When I think of it now, it was so preposterous,” Schrager says. “What were we thinking?”
Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) also interviews architects, designers, promoters, bartenders, and even a busboy from the club, all of whom provide entertaining first-person accounts of the good times as the director offers a staggering amount of visual history. You see the usual ’70s suspects: Warhol, Stallone, Minnelli, as well as a Pride Parade’s worth of drag queens. Inclusion seems to have been paramount. But the doc isn’t all about the highs: A late chapter focuses on the AIDS epidemic, with one person tearily commenting that “the loss was profound.” More sadness comes when it’s revealed that Rubell was partially closeted, at least to his mother, who at the time of his death wondered why he’d never gotten married. It makes a remark from a reveler especially mournful: “I didn’t think the party was going to end.”
Studio 54 opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.