Culture

The bacchanalian disco inferno of Studio 54 was too hot to handle for some

A new documentary film takes a sobering look back at the heady excesses of the legendary New York nightclub. Contains Bianca Jagger on a horse

Studio 54 was the legendary New York nightclub – “the ultimate nightclub”, as someone says in a film released this week – that opened in a scruffy, dangerous part of Manhattan between 1977 and early 1980. Very quickly the joint became a byword for the excesses of the disco era. It was a sex-filled, Quaalude-ingesting, celebrity-studded polymorphous bacchanalia set to a 120bpm track, a splurge of hedonism just before Reagan and Aids came along to spoil the fun.

Inside the glitzy cavern of this former TV studio, Hollywood and New York royalty mingled with the bright young things of the city’s gay scene. Elizabeth Taylor! Andy Warhol! The Stones! Bianca Jagger – on a horse! And I haven’t even mentioned the financial shenanigans behind the scenes.

Given the heady excitement and intoxicating glamour attached to this fabled venue, the peculiar achievement of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Studio 54 is the dry, sober, almost detached attitude it strikes. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – OK, the film’s parade of talking (greying and balding) heads of former denizens of the club (mostly men) and black-and-white archive images is a little uninspired.

Still, you have to applaud the steadiness of purpose in Tyrnauer’s approach: from the mayhem of the dancefloor he has extracted a solidly engaging and smart chronicle of this remarkable nightspot and a persuasive, even poignant thesis about its significance to the wider culture of the day.

The driving forces are club co-owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, two friends from Brooklyn who in the mid-1970s acquired a former CBS studio in a part of Manhattan better known for its muggings than for its burgeoning disco scene.

There was a prodigious amount of drugs and so much sex that the floor of the upstairs balcony had to be rubberised so it could be washed down more easily

Rubell – who died from an Aids-related illness in 1989 – was the more extrovert (he was played by Mike Myers in the flawed 1998 drama set in the club, 54). Friend to celebrities – look at the almost big-brotherly solicitude showered on Michael Jackson when the singer is visiting the club in what is probably the film’s most compelling archive – Rubell knew the power famous names had to create a buzz.

Rubell also engineered Studio 54’s famously draconian door policy: if you weren’t sufficiently glamorous, then you’d be refused entry. What met Rubell’s requirement for sufficient glamour seemed to change on a nightly basis but from the old film and video of rejected young men and women pleading to be let in, there were a lot of disappointments.

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Image: Adam Schull
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Over a photograph of these forlorn faces peering into the fun of Studio 54 we hear the writer Anthony Haden-Guest compare these denied partygoers to “the damned looking into paradise”. A bit much, no? And yet for those lucky enough to be let inside, Studio 54 did represent a kind of Utopia, a space for free expression, free from judgment that was of special importance for the young gay and trans clubbers. There was also a prodigious amount of drugs and so much sex that the floor of the upstairs balcony had to be rubberised so it could be washed down more easily. This leads a wonderfully awkward moment when Tyrnauer asks the man responsible for the refit of the club (a debonair gent in his early seventies): “Were you aware you were creating a sex pit?” After a long pause, the debonair gent says, “Yes”.

Tyrnauer recounts the fall of Studio 54, a tale of criminal financial mismanagement, in sorrowful detail. Now in his seventies, Schrager recalls events in a throaty rasp, but it’s left to Nile Rodgers to offer the most astute observation on the club’s downfall: it represented the rejection by the rest of America, then in the grip of recession, of New York at its most liberated and diverse. Like all earthly paradises, this one couldn’t last.

Studio 54 is in cinemas from June 15

Image: Adam Schull

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