Lively documentary ‘Studio 54’ remembers the ultimate disco
Within the 800-page expanse of “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” a reader encounters serious agitation just twice. Once is when a young woman snatches off the author’s wig at a book-signing. Oh, no! The other is during one of his regular visits to Studio 54, and he experiences a very Andy combination of enchantment and prurience. Oh, yes!
“Liza and Baryshnikov were taking so much cocaine, I didn’t know they took so much, just shoveling it in, and it was so exciting to see two really famous people right there in front of you taking drugs, about to go make it with each other.”
Liza was Liza Minnelli. Baryshnikov was Mikhail Baryshnikov. Studio 54? It’s where the late ’70s went to die. Think of it as the Titanic of discos: outsize, soon to be legendary, and doomed. Its voyage lasted 33 months, considerably longer than that of its nautical counterpart. The iceberg it hit was the IRS.
The Titanic was never name-checked in a chart-topping hit with one of the all-time killer guitar riffs, Chic’s “Le Freak”:
Like the days of stomping at the Savoy
Now we freak, oh, what a joy
Just come on down, to 54
Find a spot out on the floor.
In a nice touch, Nile Rodgers, one of the song’s cowriters, is a talking head in “Studio 54.” Matt Tyrnauer’s lively and largely affectionate documentary offers the scene in all its louche/glamorous glory. Tyrnauer has a thing for the louche and glamorous. His previous film, “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” was an entertaining look at a legendary movieland pimp and hustler. Tyrnauer also has a thing for cities. He preceded “Scotty” with “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” about urban activist Jane Jacobs. Scotty Bowers would have enjoyed the goings-on at 54 and fit right in. Jane Jacobs, not so much.
Those two elements come together in “Studio 54,” since the club — located in a former CBS studio in Manhattan, at Eighth Ave. and 54th St. (hence the name) — was a very New York phenomenon: not a social melting pot, but definitely a social Mixmaster. Most of the bridge-and-tunnel masses stayed on the other side of the rope — “like the damned looking into paradise,” as the journalist Anthony Haden-Guest says in the documentary — but not all. And if you were a celebrity, hey, come right in, and the drugs are on the house. That’s no joke. The comped controlled substances actually got listed on the books, which was just one of the problems when the feds raided the place one memorable morning in 1978.
Beside Andy and Liza and Misha, Studio 54 became a home away from home for Mick, Halston, Bianca (not necessarily with Mick), Truman, Cher, Farrah, Liz, Calvin, Sly . . . the list goes on of those on a first-name (or only-name) basis with fame. “I was never in a room with so many celebrities. I was . . . numb, says Ian Schrager, one of the club’s co-owners. Schrager is the documentary’s star: tough, dynamic, forthcoming. Well, no one who knows where all the bodies are buried is likely to tell quite all. But Schrager does have this to say about the profit-skimming that ultimately sent him to prison, along with his chief partner, Steve Rubell: “This was the Richard Nixon of skims. It just went way over and way beyond anything possible to go unnoticed.” At 54, the dancers didn’t go unnoticed, the celebrities didn’t go unnoticed, even the accountants didn’t go unnoticed.
Schrager’s voice is a post-Harvey Keitel laryngitic rasp. Listening to it is both hypnotic and a bit of encouragement to all the rest of us bridge-and-tunnel people. Schrager started out in Brooklyn, the son of a mobbed-up dad. He and Rubell became best friends as students at Syracuse University. Soon enough, they were 54’s Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.
Rubell, boyish and closeted, was the disco’s public face. At one point, we see a news clip where Jane Pauley is interviewing him. Who should wander in but an “Off the Wall”-era Michael Jackson. “It’s where you come when you want to escape,” Jackson says, trying explain the appeal of 54. He and Rubell could be kin. There’s that same blend of spooky innocence and scary ambition.
“You have to build a nice mousetrap to attract the mice,” Rubell once said. It depends on how you define “build.” Forgetting to apply for a liquor license, he and Schrager had to keep getting one-night catering licenses, at $300 a night. The profits poured in regardless. “Only the Mafia makes more money,” Rubell bragged to New York magazine. Discretion was as rare in the offices at 54 as on the dance floor. “I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen,” Rubell’s brother says of the boast. “You’re just asking the IRS to come knocking at your door.”
After serving 13 months in prison, they made a splashy comeback in the mid-’80s with the Palladium. But nobody ever mentioned the Palladium in a No. 1 single. Rubell was only 45 when he died of AIDS, in 1989. The documentary is good on the gay aspect of 54, and disco generally. Schrager became highly successful as an impresario of boutique hotels. Still, when he talks about Studio 54 there’s a touch of wonder in the tough-guy growl. “In a club, it’s all about capturing a moment,” he says. That’s what he and Rubell did, all right; and if you doubt that, just tally up all the Andy sightings.
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. At Kendall Square. 99 minutes. Unrated (as R: brief nudity, language, drug use, drug use, drug use)