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Film Fest Opinion Reviews SCAD

‘Studio 54’ gives an honest account of the infamous nightclub

District Staff
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By: Gracie Williams

Studio 54. Sex, drugs, disco and a hell of a good time. A nightclub that was a safe haven for all, and an experience that shaped an entire generation. It’s a place that everyone has heard of, a story that everyone thinks they know. But as we discover in Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary “Studio 54,” the real story is a lot more complex than that.

The documentary follows the founders of the infamous New York City nightclub, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, through their wild journey all the way to its bitter end. It begins rather innocently, with Schrager and Rubell becoming automatically inseparable when first meeting at Syracuse University. Schrager was introverted and studious, while Rubell was a charismatic social butterfly. There they began a lifelong friendship and business partnership, which never faltered but provided an outcome that they never could’ve predicted. Determined and ready for a taste of real success, Schrager and Rubell bought an empty, old CBS theater, and transformed it into the infamous Studio 54 in a mere 6 weeks. The opening night was pure pandemonium, and that mayhem never ended.

The studio created an environment of inclusivity, expression, and diversity that was never before seen, and Tyrnauer managed to capture the beauty within the madness. “It was carefree. It was hot. It was sexy,” says a partygoer, and that’s exactly what was shown in the gritty, archival film clips and pictures. Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John; anybody who was anybody was there. But Steve Rubell was the true life of the party. As a gay man who hadn’t fully come out to the public yet, Rubell felt that in the studio, along with many other members of the LGBT community, he could be who he truly was. “Steve probably had more fun than everybody,” laughs Schrager, “He was in his element.”

The film focuses in on Rubell, who was noticeably absent from the personal interviews, due to his death in the late 80s caused by the AIDS virus. The documentary felt, in a way, like a tribute to him, with close friends still becoming visibly upset when speaking of his death. You could see the deep sadness in Schrager’s expression, as he discussed his late friend and the strong bond of their friendship was displayed many times throughout.

While the sentimentality of the wild studio nights is undoubtedly present throughout the personal interviews of staff and studio-goers alike, Tyrnauer makes sure not to sugar coat any part of the story. He highlights the confusion and pain felt when the studio was suddenly raided by the IRS. Both owners are ultimately arrested and indicted on charges of tax evasion, and when they are forced to serve jail time, the studio was sold.

This documentary is the first time Schrager has publicly spoken out about what really happened behind the curtains from his view, and Tyrnauer certainly captures it well while creating a well-rounded look into the harsh, but never dull reality of the situation. Be prepared to experience a plethora of emotions, from the contagious excitement inside of the club, to the anxiousness that comes with the studio’s downfall, to the sadness of Rubell’s death and other staff members affected by the AIDS virus, to the nostalgia that everyone that experiences when recounting the incredible experiences of the nightclub. Tyrnauer reveals the authentic story of Studio 54 in a way never seen before, and essentially, shows the paradise lost.

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