CRITIPEG: Studio 54

Oct. 18, 20 & 21 at Cinematheque

Studio 54 is the confession of a man trying to find closure, trying to explain himself to his family, to the world at large – though on his own terms. Ian Schrager is setting the record as straight as he feels is responsible in a (mostly) flattering light.

Steve Rubell was the face of Studio 54. He was the notorious gatekeeper who read the auras behind the velvet ropes and cast only those with whom he resonated. He infuriated those with whom he didn’t.

Where Rubell curated the crowd, Ian Schrager orchestrated its experience. His instinct for theatre and design immersed patrons in a bath of sensation where anything and everything could happen.

Their collaborative vision drew droves to the door, hypnotized by the rhythms of flashing lights, thumping beats and swarms of costumed beauties in a sea of cocaine and quaaludes. In a time liberated by the advent of accessible birth control and naive to the imminent AIDS epidemic, the world became obsessed with this exclusive, star-studded, hedonistic wonderland.

Studio 54’s star burned brightly for 33 months before imploding.

The young nightclub moguls were imprisoned for tax evasion, the club was sold, and the magic was lost. Rubell, along with many staff members and patrons, became casualties of AIDS. He died in 1989.

Schrager survived. In collaboration with director Matt Tyrnauer, he has now orchestrated his public atonement.

Tyrnauer paints a vivid portrait of New York’s neo-decadence movement in the depths of one of the city’s biggest economic recessions. Through a collection of glittering echoes, the documentary glorifies club culture as a community of acceptance that thrived on diversity.

Stunning archival photographs and footage from personal collections and media outlets from all over the world is interspersed with more recent testimonial perspective from a roster of personalities pulled into the vortex.

Time has healed enough of Schrager’s wounds for a few moments of uncomfortable candour. At times, Tyrnauer’s line of questioning puts Schrager on the defensive. While on camera with him, silent partner Jack Dushey makes Schrager twitch when he reveals details Schrager either hasn’t remembered correctly or hasn’t wanted to publicly acknowledge.

Tyrnauer only offers a taste from the other side. The juxtaposition of testimonials from Studio 54 staff or affiliates and representatives of the criminal justice system were effective but sparse.

Tax evasion was addressed at length. The drug-fuelled orgies and impact of the AIDS epidemic were acknowledged, but there was no attention offered to the myriad of reported sex crimes.

It is not an exposé. It is a gentle telling of a modern morality tale: two young men with big dreams and hubris to match shaking the earth before a sharp fall from grace.

Accompanied by legendary disco hits, Studio 54 delivers the conflict and intrigue of a good adult bedtime story. Lives are changed, some are lost. Consequences are suffered, lessons are learned, and there is hope for the future. Acceptance. Growth. Sometimes, forgiveness.

Schrager was pardoned by President Barack Obama in 2017.

Published in Volume 73, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 18, 2018)

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