J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Studio 54


That storied disco club did something rather remarkable. It caused many elite New Yorkers to turn against the enforcement of tax laws. After all, for club owners like Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, all those tax code regulations could be so complicated—and doesn’t everyone keep large containers of cash in their drop ceilings? Especially for small change, right? Rubell and Schrager only owned and operated the famous club from 1977 to 1980, but they had quite a run. Matt Tyrnauer chronicles their glory years in Studio 54, which screened during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tyrnauer makes a convincing case Studio 54 came along at just the right time to catch the wave of burgeoning interest in tabloid-style celebrity pseudo-journalism. In fact, their former publicist still has her bonus rate card for placing Studio 54-related stories and photos. Naturally, the front page of the New York Post was the biggest get—and she got a lot of them. Rubell also shrewdly positioned the club as a haven for LGBT patrons. Somehow, that combination of the privileged and the marginalized created a buzz everyone wanted to experience.

Of course, there was also the exclusivity factor. We do indeed hear plenty of stories revolving around the velvet rope. Oddly though, there is little talk about the actual music. Nile Rodgers is one of the few musicians interviewed in the film, but he mostly discusses his experiences as a patron. For those interested in disco as a musical phenomenon, Record Man, the profile of disco-era producer Henry Stone is probably still the best doc out there.

Frankly, Tyrnauer’s 54 follows a very predictable beat sheet—rise, fall, legacy—while employing very conventional techniques. It is fitting that the film carries the imprimatur of A&E, because it has the look and feel of something cobbled together for cable. Still, it is hard to resist pop culture nostalgia, especially when served up in bulk quantities. Tyrnauer does a nice job of evoking the tenor of the time. You will hear names you haven’t heard for decades, like Bianca Jagger, the Kardashian of the 1970s. At the time, she was one of their prime publicity-generating regulars, along with Liza Minelli and Truman Capote. Honest, all this really happened.

Nevertheless, the film’s fast-and-loose skim of the legal case brought against Rubell and Schrager is conspicuously sympathetic. The film also ignores the building’s fascinating history before and after the Rubell/Schrager era. Currently, it is a Broadway theater, but it has also served as an opera house, a WPA theater, a New Wave club, and CBS soundstages.

Maybe you just had to be there, but how could you, if Steve Rubell wouldn’t let you past the velvet rope? In fact, you can hear some of the talking heads sounding a bit wistful for the time when they were the cool kids with access. It must have been fun at the time—and some of the dishy reminiscences capture that spirit. As a diversion, it holds the audience’s attention, but there is nothing earth-shaking here. Recommended primarily for fans who were there, Studio 54 had its New York premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (and it also screens today 4/29 at the Montclair Film Festival).

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