Full Frame Movie Review: Studio 54

When Studio 54 opened up in the heart of Manhattan on an April night in 1977, it wasn’t just another disco with blinking lights and a pounding bass. This was a cultural revolution. If you could get picked to go behind the velvet rope, you were part of a world where you truly could check your inhibitions with you coat. Over the 41 years since that fateful night, there’s been quite a few documentaries that have tried to capture why the club had such an impact. Matt Tyrnauer’s Studio 54 is the definitive way to absorb the tale of how an abandoned TV studio became the center of the universe for a few years.

The biggest reason Studio 54 matches the legend is that for the first time Ian Schrager fully opens up about the experience. Casual fans of the club might not recognize the name since his partner Steve Rubell was the face of the club. This was fine with Ian since he was introverted compared to his longtime friends Steve extroverted showman ways. Steve was the one who loved to stand next to the doorman at the velvet rope and point out people who were invited inside to his nightly party. While the club seemed to not make sense on their dress code, Steve automatically rejected those who wore polyester shirts. He also had an open door policy for Liza, Halston and Andy Warhol. Ian preferred to just keep the place running, counting the money and enjoying the life without being featured on Page Six. The college chums felt that Manhattan was ready for an opulent dance club and went overboard converting the old opera house turned CBS studio into the ultimate night out. Schrager and others walk us through the transformation process. The vintage footage and photographs give a complete view of the space that nobody would have recognized from The Captain Kangaroo Show. They had replaced the first level sloped seating with the dance floor. They built a giant DJ booth so that a light mixer and others could amp up the party. They kept the balcony seats so that tired dancers could sit down and watch others doing the Hustle. Although the balcony turned out to be a make out section. And if the action with you new pals got extra hot, you could retreat to the basement when you get nasty near props from The Jack Benny Show. People were able to fully enjoy their desires and vices without fear of being beaten up by thugs. There was freedom to be yourself on the other side of the velvet rope.

There was also a bar with a dark secret. Schrager points out that in all the chaos of construction that was done without permits or the union, they kinda forgot to get the liquor license. Working with notorious lawyer Roy Cohn, the duo found a fix around in that they named their business after a catering company and every day, they’d get a 1 day license to sell liquor as if they were really hosting a wedding.

The movie recounts how the place quickly took over the nightlife coverage in the city. Its VIP guests would step inside and find themselves photographed and gossiped about in ever magazine and newspaper that thrived off celebrity heat. And normal folks that weren’t wearing polyester could dance next to Warren Beatty, Cher and Michael Jackson. There’s a fantastic piece of video of Jackson with his old face dropping by the office to visit with his pal Steve Rubell. There were amazing theme nights and performances on the floor. Studio 54 was making a mint in cash since this was the era before credit cards. Of course with so much attention, cash and a rather shady liquor license practice, things were going to go bad at some point. The film does a fine job getting Ian Schrager to open up about the downfall of the club. They also bring in the third (and silent) partner in the club Jack Dushey. They still dance around a few facts in the case including who exactly in the hidden second set of books wrote a column for money skimmed from the nightly takes as “SKIM.” Schrager is hilarious as he attempts to answer without answering for fear that there could still be charges if he says too much.

Studio 54 is a definitive view of the club since it doesn’t rely on just the same two minutes of dance club footage that ends up used in every disco special on cable. There’s a richness to the views from the frustrated people outside begging to be noticed and the celebrities zonked out on the luxury sofas near the dance floor. Schrager’s insight into the club and his departed friend Steve Rubell gives it a necessary emotional edge that goes beyond, “We were having a party until the cops stopped us.” You get a sense how two guys went from steak restaurants to kings of the night.

Studio 54 is so worth experiencing in a movie theater with great audio so you can be wrapped up in the disco beat when watching people on the dance floor. You have to fight the urge to get up and undulate with Diana Ross under the cocaine sniffing moon. You can feel why the place was so alluring and ultimately why it was so heartbreaking when the doorman didn’t signal for you to step inside. At it’s prime Studio 54 was the center of the universe and had to be there.

The film was reviewed at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. There was no announcement about future dates although you’ll probably hear the disco bass beat when it arrives in your state.

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