I have a friend who can absolutely not differentiate the moods between varying house and tech songs. From Afuken to Blaze, from Basement Jaxx to Green Velvet, from Robert Miles to Primal Scream, they all sound dark to him, no matter how seemingly clear it is that many of those artists are aiming for a euphoric effect. Clubland is, to this friend, always and forever a dark wonderland attracting venal, needy, self-immolating headcases like tripped out mosquitoes to a neon-hued zapper, and thus he hears their chosen soundtrack only on those terms. And if that means even, say, Ultra Naté’s “Free” sounds like the theme song for a midnight mass of the damned, shackled by their various addictions and the social mores of the underground, well, so be it. There’s always going to be another Owl City album to carry this friend’s ears away to another world, where there is no such thing as an “alternative lifestyle.”
All of which is to say that Limelight could almost have been directed by this friend, especially given Billy Corben’s most notable previous credit is Cocaine Cowboys. In the doc, Corben takes a behind-the-velvet-rope tour of Peter Gatien’s former chokehold on New York City’s clubland scene. At his height, the gaunt, eyepatch-sporting Svengali of 2 a.m. sin was to nightlife what Walt Disney was to animation-based theme parks. The way Limelight tells it, the Canadian answer to Scarface all but owned moonlit good times. Not only did he run the club bearing the documentary’s title, but also Palladium, Tunnel, and the presumptuously named Club USA. His franchised rave culture drew in tens of thousands of sensation-starved souls every week at the height of his influence.
Naturally, with that kind of money and hedonism staking out a claim for itself, Gatien was only naturally going to find himself at odds with then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on everything opposing that nebulous “quality of life” factor, a campaign that basically equated serial murderers and rapists with homeless alcoholics, street beggars, and destitute squeegee men at traffic lights. It didn’t take too much of a leap to see how Giuliani’s mission would put good-timers in the crosshairs, especially given the DEA’s fresh and virulent fixation on the new kick on the block: ecstasy. Before long, he was the target at the center of a high-profile anti-club operation, one which led first to his arrest and eventually to his deportation back to Canada, where the nights are long but, alas, the parties apparently peter out too soon to make bank.
In practice, there are very few topics that result in less interesting documentaries than the big, ballsy nightclubs that are no longer in existence but are still deified by those old enough to have developed nostalgia for them. Limelight, like the club it’s named after, doesn’t do much to break the mold of sex-drugs-and-starfuckers sameness afflicting this particular subgenre. Moby’s assertion that Limelight provided “degeneracy without consequence” would be cliché enough if it weren’t also, thanks to its juxtaposition with the likes of party monster Michael Alig and various foot soldiers in the war against drugs, a demonstrable lie. Corben’s documentary inadvertently gets the scope and prominence of its subject just about right; he’s got a well-stocked cast of talking heads, but films all of them against a contemporaneously chintzy, neon-pink-and-green CGI background, sometimes tweaking their voices out for druggy effect. (That’s to say nothing of the animated interludes intended to take viewers on a tour of Gatien’s clubs at their height, all of which are pulled off with the panache of a 10-year-old video-game cut scene.) In the end, Limelight focuses far too much on the club’s downfall and not nearly enough on what attracted its denizens there in the first place, managing only to preach to the choir, forgetting to also take it to church.