There was a line the late great Bill Hicks came out with which really struck a chord with me. “I go to dance clubs…about once a year to justify the other 364 days I spend in my apartment going ‘God what idiots’.” I hate clubs. The drinks are overpriced, the bouncers are pigs and the music makes me envy the deaf. Sure sitting alone in the dark at my place has rendered me socially dead but at least I can listen to songs I like. The other thing I don’t like is Disco. One day God will hold us all collectively accountable for it. So it was a bit strange to review Studio 54 (2018), the documentary on the groundbreaking discothèque nightclub in New York.

What was even stranger was that I enjoyed it.

Starting with a 16mm footage montage condensing the story of the Studio 54 club we are introduced to Ian Schrager, the clubs co-founder. Schrager states that he is ready to open up about his involvement with the iconic hotspot but in truth, he tells the story of Steve Rubell, his late friend and business partner, the heart and soul of the club. Tapping into the cross-section of New York nightclubs, they created Studio 54 with one goal in mind. To become the ultimate New York Nightclub.

The film is divided into two. The first half shows the dizzying birth and growth of the Club on what was then the sleazy West Side, that promoted an Image. An Image of social freedom, free from restraint and judgment that allowed all forms of expression to flourish. It personified the New York counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. Icons like Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Mick Jagger, Richard Pryor and Michael Jackson mixed easily with New Yorkers from all walks of life. It becomes a symbol of social elitism to gain entry into the Studio, as crowds gather outside in block-long queues in the hope that they will be picked to enter. I would call it Disco’s answer to the Cavern but it’s too mainstream for that. I’ll be honest, at this stage, I was slightly bored. Not enough to switch off but it was becoming a bit background.

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Then at the Midpoint, it becomes a crime drama that grabbed me by the throat.

The second half deals with the fall out of an IRS raid on the premises, as books are discovered that implicate Rubell and Schrager of skimming 80% of the profits to avoid taxes. Doesn’t help when they turn up to stop the raid and Federal Marshals find cocaine on them.
From there it’s a story that becomes as big and flamboyant as the club itself. Mafia connections and Mob Lawyers for the Defence. Allegations of White House staff members taking lines of coke in the club when they were despite to find something to bargain with.

Studio 54 goes from a slightly interesting story of the break out of the New York Club Scene and the rise of Disco, with overtones of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death over it, to becoming a spectacular rise and fall story full of twists, turns, and drama.

Dir: Matt Tyrnauer
Cast: Ian Schrager, Steve Rubell
Prd: John Battsek, Troy Benjamin
DOP: Tom Hurwitz
Music: Lorne Balfe
Country: USA
Runtime: 98 minutes

By Pat Fox