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    Studio 54 Transports Viewers Back to Fabled Nightclub

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Studio 54, opening October 12 in the Bay Area, documents the rise and fall of the storied nightclub as seen through the eyes of co-owner Ian Schrager, among others. In an almost confessional tone, Schrager explains how he and the late, gay Steve Rubell met in college, created an exclusive club (that operated without a liquor license) and ran afoul of the law (for tax evasion, and skimming unreported income, among other crimes), before prison and reinvention.

    It’s a great true crime tale, full of ambition, greed and fame, as well as culture, music, sexuality and drugs. Studio 54 rose from Rubell and Schrager’s dream to create a successful nightclub in a part of town where one was likely to get mugged. They took the energy that was on display in gay clubs and “turned it up a notch” (several notches, really) to “capture everyone’s imagination.” Studio 54 was a place where anything could happen—”and it did,” according to one interviewee.

    Studio 54 portrays this era with considerable interest and affection. Director Matt Tyrnauer transports viewers back in time when the “age of celebrity” was created. There is a terrific interview with a young Michael Jackson talking about the excitement of the club. Moreover, as the film shows, Studio 54 was a safe space for the LGBT community, as it promised inclusion and acceptance in a world where homophobia and transphobia were prevalent, where patrons could be free and carefree.

    Rubell was not out to his mother, the film reveals. He also died from AIDS, though the official report said otherwise. He was eager to court celebrity friends, like Liza Minelli, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, who were regulars at the club. He also identified with outsiders, and invited transgender patrons such as “Disco Sally,” an aging widowed lawyer, and “Rollerena,” a Wall Street banker in drag who acted as a kind of fairy godmother.

    While Rubell was the social butterfly, Schrager worked behind the scenes. He recounts most of these anecdotes with an infectious attitude. It is as if even he can’t quite believe what he and Rubell did and lived. Schrager imparts an almost confessional tone at times, too, which gives the story some poignancy and gravitas. He is regretful about some of what transpired at the club regarding the illegal activities—involving drugs, tax evasion and skimming unreported income. And he is cagey when asked a direct question about the questionable bookkeeping. He also describes the guilt he had when he gave information to the feds while he was in prison to get a reduced sentence. The shame weighs on Schrager, who also reinvents himself.

    Rubell, who is seen only in interviews, is shown to be who he was, too—a party promoter and braggadocio who truly wanted others to have a good time, and who was fiercely loyal to his business partner (Schrager) and friends. But as the story unfolds, Tyrnauer shows how slippery Rubell was. It was, after all, a claim he made in an interview that brought about the IRS raid of the club.

    Studio 54 shrewdly chronicles the rise and fall of the club. It starts out as all good times and heady atmosphere, and the film’s soundtrack pulses to popular disco music. However, the fall is arguably more interesting. Tyrnauer juxtaposes the prosecutor in the case against Rubell and Schrager talking about the garbage bags full of cash in the drop ceiling in the basement with club manager Michael Overington’s explanation that he filled the ceilings with quarters for the bartenders because the safe where they kept the change was a pain in the neck to open. Which story viewers want to believe is up to them, but both seem plausible.

    Likewise, when the club’s criminal investigation unfolds, and Schrager is caught with cocaine on his hands, one can choose to believe he was innocent—as he claims—or chalk it up to one of the litany of mistakes he and Rubell made. Whether or not Studio 54 has ties to organized crime is also open to debate.

    Tyrnauer presents the facts rather than speculating on what is true. Studio 54 is more about how two young guys from Brooklyn captured lighting in a bottle for 33 months. It also traces the changes in American society and culture over the time to show the significance of the era and what it represented.

    Studio 54 is not a cautionary tale about how Schrager and Rubell paid the price for their hubris. It’s a fascinating story of success, failure and reinvention, well told by Tyrnauer. It should appeal to anyone who went to Studio 54, or anyone who wanted to go.

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer