Where The Music Died: Our Review of ‘Studio 54’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - October 11, 2018
Where The Music Died: Our Review of ‘Studio 54’

To us regular people it’s Studio 54, the iconic discotheque that went as fast as it came. But when its co-founder Ian Schrager talks about it, he calls it ‘Studio’. That was his baby, which was his and Steve Rubell’s and Michael Overington’s. They painstakingly built and run out of a, well, studio that CBS abandoned decades ago. There’s a documentary with the same name as the discotheque. And it shows us archive photo galore of Overington pulling on ropes. As if constructing its interiors was like pulling a curtain and putting on a show. Theirs was going to be the best discotheque ever was and they did it all to fulfill that promise.

Schrager was the behind the scenes guy who, like many of Studio’s patrons, are still alive today. But Rubell’s ghost dominates the movie. Here he talks to journalists about the kind of people he let in Studio. It also shows the lucky few who got beyond the velvet ropes. There’s an interesting use of footage here not just of the news. Audiences get to see what it was like before the team built Studio. It used to be the neighborhood where muggings happened. But Studio turned it into a destination for the bridge and tunnel crowd to party. It also gave that crowd the possibility to dance with the celebrities and the downtown elite.

Rubell also incorporated a third group into the mix – people who were in the LGBTQ+ spectrum. The film takes time to list these people. Local figures like Rollerena, who is a Wall Street banker who dressed up in a tutu and roller skates. There’s also Disco Sally, who had her own fictional version in the tolerable 54. People like them went on the news as their Studio selves. To put into context how subversive that is, people still lost their jobs for being LGBTQ+ a decade ago. It’s always nice to see people like them on screen. That despite their purpose of existing on the dance floor to amuse the others who were there.

Director Matt Tyrnauer’s oeuvre comprises of the the individual stories within the golden age of prurience. One that celebrated knowing that their downfall is around the corner somewhere. Of course, club culture and the mating rituals and hedonism within that culture still exist generations later. Those clubs still play black music that some Midwesterner would think as decadent. But there’s a pervading air here that Tyrnauer’s using nostalgia as bait. Past generations did everything better, like sex and money laundering, and dressed well while doing so. Contemporary generations who have yet to gather their own values and aesthetic are slobs in comparison.

And that golden age, of course, didn’t last because there’s no way it would. Tyrnauer shows how people like the team behind the club rose and fell. As if it’s the only character arc that exists in documentaries. In his defense, the team behind the studio didn’t have a straightforward downfall. It doesn’t just get Schrager’s perspective of the dark winter day that began then end. It also talks to Peter Sudler, the man who prosecuted him. Tyrnauer, by the way, cuts these talking head sections a bit quicker than I would like. It also seems like the doc introduces that part of their story too early. The doc too bluntly hints at how the district attorney’s office isn’t just going to go after both founders.

It shows how the IRS went after Schrager and Rubell’s secret partner, Jack Dushey. There’s an irony here – publications would write positively about the celebrities who partied at 54. And now those same tabloids are covering this scandal and are revealing things about the team. That they’re cooperating with the feds in showing the corruption that’s prevalent in other nightclubs. This is when it feels like Tyrnauer is dragging out the downfall in his film’s third act. He could have taken five minutes away from this section of the film and it would have been fine. The shifts between archive footage and modern day footage also feel unfortunately grating as it goes on.

And again, in the documentary’s defense, downward trajectories aren’t always straightforward. And docs in general differ from fictional movies that way. Fiction that tells disco’s story end when 1980 comes along. Schrager and Rubell get their second chance to mingle with celebrities. The former of the two is still building and managing hotels that they founded. Credit is where credit’s due at showing how these two men bounced back from prison. Nonetheless, there are so many ways that a documentary can tell stories about LGBTQ+ life. Ones that don’t involve rich celebrities and how they spent their time. I’d like to see Tyrnauer tackle an aspect of our lives that I haven’t seen yet.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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