Success can be so staggering that we fall. The Boom bust, the ship sank, and Paradise was lost. We yearn to return. Which is why we have Studio 54: The Documentary (2018): 100 minutes of access to “the definitive nightclub in New York City,” “the Mount Olympus of the disco world.” Open only thirty-three months, the club came to symbolise 1970s’ American hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure at 125-beats-a-minute. With interviews from owners, regulars, and promotors, Studio 54 attempts to recapture a moment as fleeting and devastating as Caesar’s Rome.
“There are only two people who could have told this story,” says Ian Schrager, Studio 54’s co-founder, “Steve and I.” He means his partner Steve Rubell, who died in 1989. The film begins with the founders. “They had an intuitive understanding that they were getting out,” says Norma Kamali, a fashion designer and Shrager’s ex. But from where? They were getting out of “openly mobile,” “ambitious,” “middle-class” families. They met at university, Shrager serious and studious, Rubell the social butterfly. “Brooklyn made me hungry,” he explains in an old interview. “I’d visit these estates and I saw how people were livin’.” This is no “rags-to-riches” story. We have two comfortable and ambitious social-climbers. Tyrnauer wastes twenty minutes pretending this is interesting.
Which may be the point. We have to wait to get in. The opening night, in 1977, was a ‘mob-scene.’ Hundreds of invitations were sent out to America’s jet-set. They came. “They invited the people,” explains a regular, “that everyone else wanted to be in a room with.” Mick Jagger and Tina Turner; Elizabeth Taylor and Truman Capote; Blondie, and Liza Minelli… “It was the beginning of the age of celebrity” says Shrager. “We were there at the right time, and we rode it for all it was worth.” A publicist was paid to fuel the press: “$500 for the cover of the Daily News. […T]he cover of the New York Post would be an additional $500,” she explains. “Anything that happened there was on the cover of the newspapers… Everyone felt they had to be there, or they were missing out.” The film shows shots of the hopeful, a congregation of coats and cold shoulders, a ringed finger tentatively raised to the doorman. “If you look at the photographs,” a journalist observes, “it’s more a slightly hopeful throng of people… it’s like the damned looking into Paradise.”
Entrance to Studio 54 was granted on the timeless truth that beauty is power. Outside stands Rubell and the doorman, raised on stools, coordinating a survival of the fittest. ‘He would split up couples’, a journalist laughs. “He would say to the girl: ‘You’re really beautiful, you can go in, but your boyfriend has gotta go home and change into a cotton shirt.’” The occupations of the ‘normal’ people, the demigods, reveal the same. The interviewees are make-up artists and hair-stylists, designers and photographers — people who understand that looks were legitimate currency.
“I remember getting past the doorman” says Sandy Linter. She looked a cross between Madonna and Tinker Bell. “[It] looked like almost a runway and it was mirrored.” The camera pans down the corridor. There’s a blurred, beating sound, like dancing under lakes of glass. When we’re | Out there dancin’ | On the floor | Darlin’ “I just remember hearing the music and I threw my coat-“ And I | Feel your body | Close to mine “There was a rush to get to the dance floor, just a rush.” We’re given the first shots of the club, caught on film. Vertical lights, like red hot bars, cast the dancers in a blood orange glow. Away with the sound are swept anxieties and proprieties, unleashing nudity and promiscuity, indecencies and obscenities. “I was wearing lingerie and heels,” says Linter. “I could go to dance floor and dance with every body. I’d float on the dance floor and dance with all my friends.” She pauses. “I mean, I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me but they didn’t care and I didn’t care — that’s how we danced at Studio.”
There was no need to care. Originally an opera house in the twenties, and later converted to a TV studio, the building was designed to create another world. “There was a theatrical quality to the place,” says one regular. “It was an experience, touching like pretty much all of your senses.” In a night would be sunsets and sunrises, snow, wind and fog. A tornado would tear up the dance floor around 1:30am. “It’s a visceral business,” explains Shrager. “You have really no discernible product except the magic you create.” It was Shrager who was the “genius,” the one with “magical ideas” — the opera’s very own phantom, the wizard of Oz. Audience became participants, dancers performers. “Everybody who worked there knew they were cast members” explains the manager. “We were putting on a show.” We see photographs of stockings, snakes and sparklers, powdered parlour maids with feather dusters. Harlequins, harps, and leopards, banquets with human heads on platters, bar tenders in bow ties, bowler hats and boxers. As the Talent Coordinator Karin Bacon states, “anything could happen. And it did.”
It was a fantasy of freedom. “It’s where you come when you wanna escape,” says Michael Jackson. “When you dance here you’re just free. You just go wild.” They talked of “sexual permissiveness,” “swinger clubs” “free love,” the fetish, Playboy and Penthouse – this whole side of American life that gushed forth when the pill finally blew the lid off. “[E]ven if you weren’t promiscuous or sleeping with someone different every night,” says a journalist, “you felt like you could.” Sex was in the air, on the balconies, in the bathrooms. “There were mattresses in the basement,” a regular confides. “I went down and slept with a lot of people, a lot.”
You were free to be whoever you were. Studio embodied a moment of cultural fusion. “ This. Was. Revolutionary,” explains the musician Nile Rodgers. “Everybody was fine with everybody else’s culture.” Once inside, Studio was a haven for inclusion and acceptance.
The era ended with the rise of AIDS. “Everybody was getting sick,” says Norma Komali. She’s choking up. “It was frightening and, if I’m still emotionally affected by it, the loss was profound.” We are shown Studio’s dead — men of Michelangelo visions, the living, grinning, vested Davids. Half the set-designers, half the bartenders, the boys that painted, are no longer with us anymore. “The impact these people had on the community,” explains Komali, “on New York City, such an incredible loss culturally. It changed everything.”
“You have to remember at that time AIDS wasn’t a disease,” says Rubell’s brother. “It was a condemnation, so Steve wouldn’t let me tell our parents.” It was concealed at the time: “Rubell died this morning from complications of hepatitis,” we see newsrooms report, died of “liver failure” or “septic shock.” “Mrs Rubell said to me,” says the club’s press assistant, “‘Why didn’t Steve ever get married?’ and I realized then that she never really knew that he was gay.” It was “part of that time,” she says, a time of covert crisis and spectral sons.
Often, falls are more fantastic than the fame. Many films are made for the sake of their ends. We wait hungrily for the death in the bunker, the family shot in their beds. Studio 54 tries to imitate a similar drama. Half the film retells its closure, the film’s final hour. But Studio 54 is a simple, predictable story. It was the “success,” says Shrager. “The success went to everybody’s heads.” We hear of tax evasion, a “gigantic skimming operation.” “Drugs [were] hidden at Studio 54,” says the prosecutor. It comes as no surprise. We’ve seen Rubell in a make-shift coke coat, container of “money and drugs.” The hour is summed up in one fell sweep: “It’s human nature,” says Norma Komali. “It’s the way life is.” Studio 54 fizzles out, fascinated with a fall at the expense of what we have lost. For Studio 54 was an era’s very own Paradise Lost.