"Studio 54" Review

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Studio 54 is the new documentary that takes a look at the famous New York City nightclub, or infamous, depending on how you look at it. From director Matt Tyrnauer, who’s past documentaries include 2008’s Valentino: The Last Emperor and 2017’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, Studio 54 is an entertaining look at a club that, if you could somehow get in, would transport you to a different world. This is a nightclub that quickly rose to the heavens, only for it to come crashing back down to earth. The doc succeeds in letting the owners tell the story themselves, giving the viewer the inside look at the impact Studio 54 had on everyone involved.

In the late 70s, college friends Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell opened up a nightclub on West 54th Street in NYC. At the time, it was considered by many to be one of the sleaziest blocks in town, due to it being rundown and a place you wouldn’t want to be at night. Taking over the building that used to be where CBS Television produced some of their hit shows, Schrager and Rubell created what they called the “ultimate club” and paradise. An overnight success that went beyond their wildest dreams, this became the hottest ticket in town for close to three years, where celebrities frequently attended. But like the story of Icarus, Schrager and Rubell flew too close to the sun, and after awhile, especially after comments made by Rubell that only the Mafia made more money than them, the IRS and the feds started knocking on their doors.

For the most part, Tyrnauer does a good job in balancing the documentary. While the nightclub is the main meat of the story, Tyrnauer wraps it around what’s essentially a biography on both Schrager and Rubell by covering how they met in college, decided to be business partners, why they decided to create Studio 54, and so forth. In a sense, they were perfect for each other. I think it was wise that Schrager waited until enough time has past so that he could properly reflect and tell his side of what went down. Like this summer’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rubell speaks through archival footage so that we hear from him also (Rubell sadly died from AIDS complications in 1989). Another neat effect that Tyrnauer and his editor employ is that we see a photo of a surviving member of the nightclub which transitions to them in present day giving their side as well.

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Studio 54 was basically a social experiment, ahead of its time in its inclusivity of the LGBTQ community. If the outside world shunned you, once you came inside Studio 54, it  felt like home and no one cared about what you were as long as you were having a good time. The doc makes good use of old footage, from photographs to never before seen footage inside the nightclub it gives us a sense of what it was like to be there. Using news footage and interviews as well, including where Michael Jackson crashes an in progress interview with Rubell, is quite fascinating to see. For a 98-minute documentary, the pacing is good in that there’s never a dull moment within the film.

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I think my biggest complaint about this documentary is that since the club was infamous in certain aspects, it somewhat skims the surfaces of how hedonistic and crazy it was to be inside the club. If you managed to get in in the first place, there are the wild tales of drugs floating around, hooking up inside, or having physical relations with someone you just met. They briefly discuss it, but it never dives deep into those areas. I also wished that they got more of the celebrities who attended Studio 54 to tell about their experiences within the club, since it was a popular hotspot for them. There are a lot of different avenues that this documentary could have taken, but it makes me wonder if they chose this route to get Schrager on-board to finally open up. One of the best moments of the film involves the prosecutor telling his side of the story after searching for evidence after Studio 54 was raided, and then the manager of Studio 54 tells it from his perspective. The juxtaposition was beautiful, and I wished that there were more moments sprinkled into the documentary where we see a back and forth like that.

Overall, if you’re looking for a more in-depth, critical look, you should probably look someplace else. From a documentary standpoint, while I wished that Studio 54 delved deeper in more aspects, the parts that Tyrnauer does treat us to are quite interesting and does provide some nice insight into it all. Even showing us how Schrager changed his life for the better (he was pardoned last January by President Obama). So in a way, it’s more of a celebration about what the nightclub was to everyone. If you’re in the mood to watch a good doc, I would suggest checking this out sometime.

Rating: B