Nostalgia is a funny thing. Am I regretting the jackets with shoulder pads that added heft but not necessarily strength? How about that picture of me with hair that looked like a magnolia tree? Every couple of years it seems fashion and art loop us back to a decade about which I have very mixed feelings. First it was the 60’s, then the 80’s. Now the 70’s are grabbing hold.
Almost concurrently with a giant retrospective of Andy Warhol’s work due soon at the Whitney comes Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary on Studio 54. Or “Studio” as the owners, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager and anyone who was anyone referred to it. Warhol hung at Studio. So did Liza Minelli, and Halston, and Bianca Jagger and Capote.
That did not include me. Oh, I don’t mean to suggest I was a victim of the velvet rope. In fact, my boyfriend in college belonged to a fraternity in which Rubell and Schrager were older brothers, already besties, and I met them at events and so it was not impossible to think I could have become a denizen. The journey of these two Brooklyn boys who remained soulmates and partners until Rubell died of AIDS is the film’s narrative spine. I did not know that Schrager’s father was a mobster but it makes perfect sense in light of what eventually befell him. I suppose you can learn the grift at the knee just like woodworking.
But truth be told, Studio 54 terrified me. Walking in there reminded me of Dead concerts only better dressed, or mostly undressed, but with the same lighting and tripped-out sweaty scene that brought back intense acid flashbacks. Representing as it did the age of celebrity mixed with the toxicity of drugs, the scourge of AIDS, and then the revelation that the two owners were crooks, Studio 54 took the temperature of the 70’s with a vengeance.
Club culture, until then decidedly fringe, became mainstream. The place to see and be seen. Dancing--which I did love-- took on an added sexual dimension, a way to hook up, especially if you were gay. The documentary is replete with interviews with the worker-bee non-celebrities: the silent investor, the Rubell brother, the door guy, the lighting guy, the accountant, and a narration provided largely by Schrager who by the looks of it can’t decide if he’s really contrite about his tax evasions, or not. Events, he implies, got away from them. The headiness of being at the epicenter of a certain cultural zeitgeist was too tempting to resist. He almost seems bemused by his follies, his stay in prison.
I’m trying to decide if anyone who did not live through that era will find Studio 54 avant garde or totally retro. Nobody knows who Minelli and Halston are anymore. Nobody knows that Capote totally combusted after his novel Answered Prayers, which contained a infamous chapter on the rich who had supported him, abandoned him, precipitating a fall into alchoholism and drug addiction similar to many of the celebs at Studio 54. How was it to have close friends and colleagues in the culture world get sick with AIDS, keep it a secret until they couldn’t anymore and then die? It was a brutal era, less optimistic than the decade that preceded it, and it gradually gave way to a New York which was all about money.
Tyrnauer, who has had his eye on more intellectual residents of NY as well, does a good job conveying the madness and the mayhem. But in the end,though the ostensible through line is the ‘freedom’ that Studio 54 purportedly made its regulars feel, the documentary made me sad for all the missing persons and not at all nostalgic for this aspect of the seventies when being able to do whatever you wanted began to seem like the scariest thing in the world.
The film opens in NY on October 5 and then rolls out across the country. I’m curious to see how it does outside the NY region.