For a breath, about halfway through, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Studio 54 actually suggests the experience of a visit to its subject, that Kubla Khan of discotheques. We’ve already seen the wannabes thronged out front, cowed by velvet ropes, competing for the favor of strapping doorman Marc Benecke. Stars and the fabulous swan right in; chuckleheads in Saturday Night Fever polyester languish unanointed until they give up and head to runner-up disco Xenon — or home to Jersey.
That teeming mob footage is epochal but also familiar. Less so is what follows: Someone back then had the good sense to film what happened next for those chosen to ascend to disco nirvana. A camera pushes into the Studio’s storied West 54th street doors, revealing a curiously empty lobby, grand and drab at once, a purely functional, unceremoniously lit reminder of the building’s recent dormancy and long history (it was the CBS studio home of Captain Kangaroo!). As the camera glides through, a speaker rhapsodizes in voiceover about stillness, anticipation, the muffled thump of the party raging through the next set of doors, the most exclusive boogie wonderland of them all. The mood is sanctified, the imminent hedonism almost holy.
Then the doors open, and Studio 54 gets back to being what it mostly is, a scrapbook celebration rather than an urgent immersion. Footage of Studio life — the lavish lights, the Broadway-style props and performance numbers, the heaving mass of beautiful people — plays here mostly in chaotic montage, with few shots related to the one coming next. Don’t expect detailed, revealing plunges into the sanctum. Instead, we get chopped-up testimonials from Studio stalwarts, B-roll glimpses of the promised land gathered by TV news crews and many assemblages of still photos, with an emphasis on celebrities and/or exposed breasts. Studio co-founder Ian Schrager, today an impresario of boutique hotels, is on hand to talk us through the good times, squirm a bit about the bad and speak lovingly of his Studio partner and eventual co-defendant, the late Steve Rubell.
Helped along by headlines and news clips, the filmmakers do better with the crash-and-burn business story than they do with the actuality of the Studio experience. Rubell and Schrager, of course, skimmed money without reporting it to the feds, stashing cash in the ceiling. Meanwhile, the club was awash in drugs — witness John Belushi, playing Rubell in a "Weekend Update" sketch on Saturday Night Live, talking through a powder of coke dust.
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This all makes for a shallow but vivid history. It’s hard to miss with scenes of Roy Cohn himself fulminating against prosecutors whom we know are in the right. Rudy Giuliani doesn’t come close to that flamethrower of vituperative prevarication. But the film might have proven more incisive and memorable if it focused more often on the stories of Studio regulars, on the specifics of life on the floor or in the infamous sex-pit balcony or on the idea of Studio 54 as LGBTQ utopia, as an agent of change that shaped the world to come. All of that gets addressed generally, quickly, asserted rather than demonstrated. Even in this tell-all movie, we’re mostly outside, behind the rope.