Here’s two things that you should know about me:
First off, I am a huge history nerd. History fascinates me the way that some people are fascinated by football or video games. I’m always interested in learning about the way the world used to be and I think one of the biggest problems that we, as a society, have right now is that too few people actually know much about anything that happened before they were born. For that reason, I absolutely love documentaries.
Secondly, my two favorite 20th century decades are the 20s and the 70s. If you think about it, both decades have a lot in common. In both the 20s and the 70s, American reacted to a national trauma by essentially saying, “Fuck this. I’m going to have a good time.” After the trauma of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, Americans in the 1920s reacted by retreating to speakeasies and idolizing gangsters and tycoons. In the 1970s, American dealt with the aftereffects of Vietnam and Watergate by retreating to discotheques and drugs. It’s all a part of the cycle of history. When confronted by a combination of trauma and humorless scolds (whether they’re preaching prohibition or governmental reform), many Americans will decide to seek pleasure instead.
(Interestingly enough, the wild parties of the 20s and the 70s were both ended by a combination of a financial crisis and a new presidential administration.)
The 20s and the 70s are especially relevant today because I think we’re on the verge of entering another decade in which people are going to pursue pleasure above all else. Right now, America is dealing with several traumas and while the humorless scolds may currently be getting the majority of the media attention, there’s a definite backlash brewing. People are getting tired of being told they have to do this or that they can’t say that. If the world’s going to end anyway, the thinking will go, we might as well enjoy our final days.
With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that I ended up watching the 2018 documentary, Studio 54, on Netflix last night.
From 1977 to 1979, Studio 54 was the Manhattan discotheque, a nightclub that was populated by the rich, the famous, and the coked up. Depending on which side of the cultural divide you called home, Studio 54 represented either everything that was good about New York in the 70s or everything that was bad. It was place where people could be themselves but only if they were famous enough or interesting enough to convince the people working the door to let them in. In Spike Lee’s ode to New York in the 70s, 1999’s Summer of Sam, John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino may have been the most glamorous couple in the Bronx but not even that was enough to get them through Studio 54’s front doors.
Through the use of archival footage and interviews with some the people who were actually at Studio 54 during its heyday, Studio 54 shows how two young men, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, opened a nightclub in the sleaziest part of Manhattan and quickly became the undisputed kings of New York nightlife. Perhaps the only thing quicker than their rise was their fall. A combination of drugs, hubris, and the IRS led to not only Schrager and Rubell losing Studio 54 but also spending a year in prison. After they two were released from prison, they found success opening up another nightclub and several hotels. Rubell died in 1989, his official cause of death listed as being hepatitis and septic shock complicated by AIDS. Schrager has gone on to become one of the world’s top hoteliers and received a presidential pardon in 2017.
Though the film is largely built around interviews with Ian Schrager, it’s the deceased Rubell who dominates the majority of the story. As Schrager himself puts it, Schrager was an introvert who thrived behind-the-scenes while Rubell was an extrovert who loved hanging out with and being seen in the company of the rich and famous. One of the most interesting themes of the documentary is that, even though he made a fortune by embracing the LGBT community and its culture with Studio 54, Steve Rubell himself remained closeted. Rubell, the film suggests, created 54 so he could finally have a place where he could be himself in a way that he couldn’t be in the outside world. When we see archival footage of Rubell being interviewed during 54’s heyday, we see evidence of both his charisma and his decline. There’s quite a contrast between the fresh-faced, enthusiastic Rubell who we see at 54’s opening and the exhausted-looking Rubell that we see a year later, slurring his words and looking at the world with dark-circled, bloodshot eyes.
Schrager, unfortunately, never comes across as being as compelling a figure as Rubell. In his interviews, Schrager is open about some things but there are other times when he seems to shut down. Schrager tells us about all the work that went into getting Studio 54 ready for its grand opening but, when it comes time to discuss his own arrest for cocaine possession, he becomes evasive. I guess that’s understandable because, really, who wants to relive being arrested? But since Shrager’s arrest set off the chain of events that eventually led to 54’s downfall, it’s hard not to regret the feeling that we’re not getting the full story.
The same could be said about this documentary as a whole. It’s frequently fascinating and I loved seeing all of the old pictures of people like Andy Warhol and Liz Taylor hanging out at Studio 54. If you’re interested in the McCathy era, you might want to watch this documentary just for the chance to see Roy Cohn show up at Rubell and Schrager’s attorney. And yet, you watch the film and you regret that it didn’t dig even deeper into both what Studio 54 was and what it represented to people in both the 70s and today. Studio 54 is a good place to start but, by the end of documentary, you still feel like there’s more to the story than you’ve been told.