VOD film review: Studio 54
Mike Williams | On 23, Jun 2018
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Cast: Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager
Watch Studio 54 online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
Studio 54, not to be mistaken for the 1998 drama 54 starring Ryan Phillippe and Neve Campbell, is a fulfilling documentary about the titular nightclub that rewards patience above anything else. Over 90 minutes, director Matt Trynauer takes us on a journey starting before the care-free, drug-fuelled, money-making wild nights of partying that, at its peak, saw Studio 54 dominate 1970s New York culture on a nightly basis.
College friends Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s idea for a grandiose spectacle of a club like the world had never seen before tapped into the explosion of the disco genre and liberation of the LGBT community that surprisingly hadn’t been catered for at the time. It’s a fascinating and insight story into the ins and outs of the birth, popular rise, and inevitable downfall of the notoriously famous venue that is accessible no matter your level of knowledge on the time, place, or people itself.
While it’s slow to get going – even a tad boring, at first, as it struggles to establish itself – perseverance pays dividends by the end, because Studio 54 noticeably builds momentum, as Steve and Ian’s flamboyant lifestyles begin to consume them and, in turn, inflate their egos so uncontrollably that things inevitably backfire, due to corners cut and skims they turn a blind eye to.
With an abundance of vibrant and grainy footage, its 70s aesthetic feels nostalgically warm and it’s refreshing to transport back to what seemed like a simpler time. It encapsulates what Millennials perceive the 1970s to be like: dancing, partying, drugs, sex, and a whole lot of funk and colour. There’s something inexplicably soothing about stepping back in time to witness the rise of an empire – albeit a brief one – as Schrager serves as a present day narrator, who by all intents was the quieter one of the two pioneering club owners.
This combo of archive video and Shrager’s honest, and, at times, bashful, recounting paints a vivid picture: as an audience, we are allowed to indulge in a time where Studio 54 was revolutionary by its nature. By the halfway mark, events have moved up several gears and it’s far more engaging. Indeed, we can even begin to compare the goings-on with what we see in Martin Scorsese’s 1980s-set The Wolf of Wall Street in terms of its drugs and sex and criminal indiscretions, as there are some mirroring moments where big money is concerned.
Yet it’s the freedom and confidence Studio 54 exuded within the gay community (and beyond) that was a thing of beauty. At a time where AIDS was something to fear, the sexual liberation these revellers experienced is something of a double-edged sword: on one hand, the moment anyone walked through the doors of Studio 54 they were automatically beamed to a safe haven that encouraged people to embrace who they were; on the other was a stark reminder of just how little people knew about AIDS, how it spread, and the sad reality of a generation of men that lacked the understanding of a need for safe sex. As Ian and Steve end up going down very contrasting paths in life, the conclusion offers viewers a particularly sombre ending to a rollercoaster ride.
What we’re left with is a surprisingly comprehensive and emotionally taut story about the rise and death of disco culture and those who were cogs in its mainstream machine. It’s also a poignant tale of friendship and platonic love between the founders of Studio 54, as well as the nature of sheer fickleness around them.