The New York nightclub Studio 54 was so iconic that we feel like we know its story, but this documentary is packed with never-heard details that cast it in a whole new light. The film Studio 54 is solidly well-made, assembled with an insider’s perspective and packed with photos and footage of the top stars of the day partying like there’s no tomorrow. It traces the club’s history to explore why, even now, a venue that was open less than three years is still seen as the epitome of hedonistic glamour.
In the late 1960s, Steve Rubell met Ian Schrager in their fraternity at Syracuse University and they became lifelong friends and business partners. An odd couple, the buoyantly gay Rubell was the life of any party, while the more reticent Schrager was the resolutely straight, silent partner. Together they transformed an old theatre on 54th Street in Manhattan, most recently used as a TV studio, into what they hoped would be a disco fantasy, with decadent spaces, elaborate lighting and an endless supply of glitter, sex and drugs. Studio 54 opened in April 1977 and immediately became the place to be, attracting virtually all of the most famous people in the world. An escape from the real world, this was a place celebrities could be themselves without fear of judgment.
Director Matt Tyrnauer traces the events chronologically, catching how it felt to run a club that suddenly became so popular that they needed to invent a system of velvet ropes and picky doormen. For two years, the club was the buzzing pinnacle of pop culture. Then Rubell and Schrager’s loose management style caught up with them, as they were circumventing alcohol licensing laws, openly supplying drugs and skimming off cash to avoid paying taxes. The club closed in February 1980 as Rubell and Schrager began one-year sentences in prison for tax evasion.
The core of this film is the bond between Rubell and Schrager, who continued to live together until Rubell’s Aids-related death at age 45 in 1989. Yes, the club’s heyday came just before the arrival of Reagan and the Aids epidemic. Intriguingly, Rubell was openly gay in the club but closeted around his family and non-clubbing friends. The story is mainly narrated by Schrager, but there are also plenty of archival interviews with Rubell woven in to make sure his lively personality infuses everything. This helps the film beautifully depict their mutual affection, even when things got tough for them. And Schrager’s honesty about their dodgy business dealings is refreshing. The film may not dig too deeply, but it never shies away either.
Of course, the most enjoyable side of this film is the imagery of stars partying the night away. One of the best clips is of a young Michael Jackson describing why Studio 54 was such a special place for him. Basically anyone who was famous in the late 1970s was a fixture at the club, from Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol to Tina Turner and Brooke Shields. Seeing these people, and hearing those fabulous disco anthems, gives the film a wonderful blast of nostalgia. And it almost lets us feel what it must have been like to be there.