Of all the incredible images to be found in Studio 54, the most haunting is a black-and-white photograph of people perched outside of the titular disco, waiting in vain to be let into the building. This photo epitomizes a central irony of Studio 54, which director Matt Tyrnauer seizes on in his documentary: that a place of great freedom and hedonism, which contributed significantly to the mainstreaming of gay culture, also practiced its own form of elitism.
Studio 54’s co-owner, Steve Rubell, famously said that he wouldn’t let himself in the club, and Tyrnauer includes footage of him dressing people down for their appearances, savoring his role as a cultural gatekeeper. If Rubell liked your look, it meant that you got to party all night with the likes of Truman Capote, Liza Minelli, Michael Jackson, and Paul Newman; if he didn’t, you were just another schnook trying to get into a club. A master hustler, Rubell had a gift for cultivating an exclusivity that implicitly flattered those in the fold, even paying photographers to keep his famous guests in the local papers.
Tyrnauer doesn’t judge Rubell, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989, or Studio 54’s other prominent co-owner, Ian Schrager, who went on to become a hotel magnate and who sits down with the filmmaker to discuss the club for the first time since its collapse. Now 71, Schrager evinces a weariness that’s commanding and poignant, describing his relationship with Rubell as resembling a marriage. Schrager discusses Studio 54’s rise and spectacular fall, which occurred only 33 months after its opening, due to rampant drug use and money skimming. Schrager is frank about his and Rubell’s exploits, and Tyrnauer unearths fascinating nitty-gritty details about the club’s operation.
Reconnecting with co-owner and silent partner Jack Dushey, Schrager claims that they paid $400,000 for Studio 54, which Dushey tellingly corrects, claiming that the payment was close to $700,000. In this revision one discerns a glimmer of resentment on Dushey’s part, as it was this sort of fiscal carelessness that led to Studio 54’s undoing, with Rubell and Schrager sent to jail for tax evasion. Viewers also see balance sheets for the club, with columns indicating skimming, drug expenses for celebrities, and guests who are so important as to earn the designation “NFU”—“no fuck up.”
With Schrager’s help, Tyrnauer recounts the cementing of Schrager and Rubell’s partnership, while offering a parallel portrait of the hold that Studio 54 continues to have on pop culture. Meeting at Syracuse University, Rubell and Schrager were working-class guys looking to make a name for themselves, and Rubell was already a prodigious networker, known as the person on campus to talk to about classes or getting the number of a certain woman. Schrager, who initially became an attorney, handled the minute details while Rubell drummed up interest in their various projects. For instance, Schrager was pivotal to the design of Studio 54, which was once the Gallo Opera House and later a CBS studio. Utilizing the building’s vast space, Schrager doubled down on the structure’s theatrical roots to create an ever-shifting pleasure palace that suggested an alternate dimension—a physicalizing of fantasy. At one point in the film, Tyrnauer lingers on the modern Studio 54, allowing disco music to seep into the soundtrack as the camera pushes toward what was once the central dance floor, simulating for the audience the erotic pull of a simultaneously democratic and restrictive sex paradise.
As foolish and gluttonous as Rubell and Schrager were, Tyrnauer nurtures our sympathy for them without shortchanging their hypocrisies. The implication of the film, voiced by Rubell with typical braggadocio in archive interviews, is: Who wouldn’t gorge themselves like this if given the opportunity? In this regard, Studio 54 is similar to Tyrnauer’s Scotty Bowers and the Secret History of Hollywood, as both documentaries dramatize the allure and the danger of living on the upper level of a rarefied sexual caste system, where freedom can quickly beget exploitation. To dissolve all boundaries is to risk losing oneself, which was almost certainly what the closeted Rubell and the potentially mafia-connected Schrager were attempting to do.
Using intimate stock footage, Tyrnauer shows Studio 54 to be a place of ecstasy—a simultaneously personal and impersonal community that one presumes would grow exhausting. When Tyrnauer’s subjects speak of the disco, they sometimes suggest recovering addicts, and with excess comes hangover. Inadvertently, Studio 54 became a symbol of a countercultural rebel yell, which would fade as America shifted into a neoconservative phase, equating consumerism with personal identity. Yet Tyrnauer understands that the seeds of such a shift were also present in Studio 54’s lush, rampant excess. There’s a perilously fine line between rebellion and complacency, particularly in a country so adept at deliberating confusing those distinctions.