Film Review: Studio 54 Documentary

Dancing on the Sun

You don’t have to be a clubber to have heard about the gleefully notorious original Super Club that reigned the dank and seedy Meatpacking District streets of Lower Manhattan in the 1970s. Studio 54 only existed for 33 months, but it’s bass and glamour traversed the world and time, shinning like a coke dabbed diamond on a dance floor made of glitter. It was a bacchanalian wonderland, a flamboyant oasis of life and flesh, a theme park licensed for excess, instead of actually focusing on the basics like having an actual liquor license.

It was a club built for the world, where every dance of life was welcome, but only if you could get in. There were no barriers to what was allowed to go on, but you had to have fame or that elusive ‘It’ factor to get selected via its infamous door policy, before you could be ferried away to this extravagant fantasy island.

Such is the infamy of this palace of luscious sin, that over the decades the stories have recounted many a time in various articles, homage and documentaries. But it is only now with the release of the fantastic new documentary ‘Studio 54’ (2018) by director Matt Tyrnauer that not only is there as rewind, but it finally sets the record straight. Like a seasoned DJ dropping a white label on the turntable that instantly fills the dance floor with hands trying to build the Tower of Babel, Matt has the full support of not only some of the original staff of the iconic venue, but also the remaining founding members, the actual people who built the temple.

Established by devoted friends Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, who on the surface temperament and lifestyle wise seemed completely opposite, but together built a kingdom that redefined disco and entertainment forever. Steve tragically passed in 89, and it is only now that Ian has felt okay to tell the complete story of what it’s like to fly so close to the Sun that you can dance on it, and what a story it is.

With access to truly phenomenal footage and photography that has never been shown before, supported with multiple anecdotes from the people that were actually part of these tales, it is a stunning insight into an extraordinary exuberant and ever so slightly debauched (well A LOT) exploding star moment in human history.

A parallel dimension of perms and pills, Studio 54 truly was like nothing else on Earth. Established in an actual old theatre, it used that marinated spectacle as a starting point for what it was aiming for, effectively the greatest show on Earth, every single night, like nothing anyone had ever seen before, and would never see again. Each performance was uniquely original, a full production show of extravaganza that exploded the senses and minds of all who were there. The bounteous amount of drugs that were available certainly didn’t hinder the heights and highs that were universally experienced by the nightly pageant, from the phosphorus dazzle of lights to the midnight basement layered with mattresses where frequent orgies were the norm.

The mix of people that were there was unimaginable, from the A’ist of A listers to the beautiful and bizarre, all floating around in this divine soup of humanity, were the judgements of the world outside the walls were banished, for the briefest of moments many folk could truly be who they really were.

The level of photographs and video footage that Tyrnauer has been given access to is just stunning, there is many a night that had a natural disaster happened, it could have single handedly wiped out celebratory culture. Shot after shot of the most famous people in the world parading the only court that mattered. There’s even a moment chatting with an incredibly young Michael Jackson discussing the profound merits of 54.

These of course were the immortal shining glory moments, but like moths to the light, there would be a finality too. The documentary follows the entire journey of the venue from conception, to it’s demise. The stunning thing being the freedom and joyously care free attitude that built the sanctuary was the very same thing that destroyed it and a great many lives. Through an ever so slightly dubious approach to book keeping, such as storing sacks of money in bin bags in the ceiling, and a tragically naive freedom of sexual liaisons, there was an immense crash that ended the dancing.

To it’s credit the documentary doesn’t shy away from the flipside of all the glitter. There are debts, deaths and prison time mixed in as the legend unfurls and unravels, yet always with the sense that it couldn’t have happened any other way, it was created like nothing before, existed like nothing before, and ended like nothing before.

Despite the darker elements, this is absolutely a celebration of people, life and humanity. Yes there is excess, but the glorious freedom and tolerance that is on show is life inspiring. It’s a festival of the flamboyant, the ridiculous, the beautiful and joy, that looks stunning and has a killer soundtrack. It also REALLY made me wish I could time travel back and strut my stuff on it’s dance floor. What more could you want?

8/10 ‘Studio 54’ is out now in the UK and Ireland.