The New York nightclub sensation lasted for less than three years before being shuttered by the IRS, but for that one brief shining moment…. This is the story of Studio 54’s two founders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, high school friends who dreamed of doing something Big. Both were Jewish kids from Brooklyn; Rubell was gay while Schrager was (and is) straight. True to stereotype, Rubell was the social butterfly who greeted people at the front door, especially the celebrities, catering to their needs for attention or privacy, or for drugs; Schrager was the entrepreneur who worked behind the scenes to keep the operation running.
The film’s structure is that of a classical myth: the first half takes us from the dream of two working-class kids to the pinnacle of success that the 54 reached in 1979, the year when the IRS raided its offices and arrested its two owners for skimming large sums of unreported income. They received a sentence of three years but had their stay reduced to a year by informing on other tax evaders. Rubell died of AIDS in 1989; Schrager, whose testimony provides the narrative backbone of the film, went on to found a hotel empire. Director Matt Tyrnauer sets out to answer the question, What made Studio 54 different; why did it become theplace for celebrities and wannabes, who waited in droves outside the front door each night clamoring to be let in? We have our answer by opening night, which was a mob scene: it was the hype.
The epic rise and fall of Studio 54 would come to encapsulate—or anticipate—the far more momentous catastrophe that soon befell the gay community at large. With the arrival of AIDS in 1981, the disco scene and party drugs would become part of the morality play that unavoidably colors the memory of what came before. Apart from that historical superimposition, Studio 54 was a phenomenon that came to symbolize a cultural moment or Zeitgeist, much as Stonewall had a decade earlier: the age of disco, the apotheosis of celebrity culture, dreams of sexual enlightenment and divine decadence for all.
This documentary was shown at the Provincetown International Film Festival in June.