A “Studio 54” Support Group Helped Make the New Documentary Happen
The film's director tells us Studio 54 was “the James Dean of discos: live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.”
Liza Minelli, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Halston at Studio 54. Photograph by Adam Schull.
Slightly fuzzy, scratched, and patinated film crackles onto the big screen. A crowd comes into view, trembling on the sidewalk on a dark New York City night as taxis whiz by. Girls are waiting in furs. A man is grinning in a lamé gold jacket. Another lights a cigarette on the dance floor. This is Studio 54.
Forty years after its zenith, the legendary disco club is captured in Studio 54, a new documentary by Matt Tyrnauer, which had a premiere at Tribeca last week.
“I look for stories that people think they know, but they don’t really know,” said Tyrnauer. “Studio 54 is one of those things. Ian Schrager had never spoken about it in any depth before, and that became the guiding creative thrust.” (Schrager, the Studio 54 mastermind-cum-hotelier, speaks candidly for the first time on camera about the club, and his fall from grace.) The famed and fabled version of Studio 54, mythologized in pictures of Bianca Jagger riding in on a white horse, is true—but it conceals the larger realities behind Studio’s making and subsequent downfall.
Studio 54 is first and foremost a love story, a deep dive into the relationship between Schrager and his co-founder Steve Rubell (the latter appears in archival footage; he died in 1989). The two met in college and became fast friends; through the boom and bust of the nightclub and their public reputations, they were bonded for life. In the film, Schrager notes, simply and poignantly: “We rose and fell together.”
Tyrnauer’s background as a journalist—he is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair—is evident throughout the film, both in the depth of research and through the characters he chooses. Several interviewees are journalists themselves who wrote extensively about the club during its heyday. “The story of celebrities enjoying Studio 54 and people enjoying celebrities there was not even of tertiary importance to me,” said Tyrnauer of his decision to forgo the celebrity fantasia most chroniclers of the nightclub flock to. Tyrnauer also delves into Schrager’s archive, including a scrapbook of press clippings: “Anything that really showed the artistic hand or the design elements of the era was important for me to show,” he said. “[And] they’re funny: they’re a little tongue-in-cheek, like when the animal control board of New York sent them a letter saying that a live cheetah was not permissible on the premises of a nightclub.”
The process of the film gave Tyrnauer a deeper appreciation for those aesthetics, calling Studio 54 a powerful time capsule of high ’70s style. He insists, however, that “middle-brow” style in the ’70s was less than glamorous. “I was a little kid in the ’70s, and I was fucking terrified,” he said. “The ’70s for me symbolize aesthetic terror. It was shag carpet and avocado refrigerators, and people with unruly hair who didn’t bathe, and a lot of pot smoking that seemed not chic, and Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison dying frightening deaths.”
Studio 54 does have its celebrity moments, though they are carefully curated, but the highlight of the documentary is in its opening and interspersed throughout: 16mm film of the club, previously unseen. Through all the attempts at documenting Studio 54 over the years, from films to exhibitions to books, how did Tyrnauer find what no one else had? In a Studio 54 support group. “There’s a network of Studio people that have never recovered,” he said. “Metaphysical AA for Studio. It was the defining moment of their life, and they’re a diaspora; the great villain, Facebook, actually helped them stay together. They have reunions, [which] we infiltrated, and just in talking it came to light that there were some film students from NYU who were allowed to sneak in [to Studio 54] with a 16mm camera. So we located those people, and they had the film; it had never seen the light of day.”
Tyrnauer’s film also has an undercurrent of redemption. Schrager’s reticence in discussing his Studio days came from a great sense of shame that arose from its collapse: his prosecution and sudden turn from fame to infamy. At the film’s close, details of the 2017 Presidential Pardon that Schrager received are shown. “There was a lot of press pressure to talk about [Studio] because it’s such an epic scandal,” said Tyrnauer. “And New York loves a scandal. They had a year and a half of being the darlings, and then they went to prison. Hardly anyone had gone to prison for that kind of tax evasion; they were made an example of.”
“They were, I think, the leading edge of that crackdown which has brought us the sanitized Duane Reade Manhattan that we all live in today,” continued Tyrnauer. “Where are the diners? Where are the after hours clubs? Where’s the 24-hour New York City that never sleeps in Frank Sinatra songs? It’s gone with the wind. There’s a certain poignancy to that.”
The film makes clear that though it was in part due to the collective brilliance of Schrager and Rubell, Studio 54 was made both by the people who frequented it as well as the time it was established in—namely, during the sexual revolution. Studio 54 took the subversiveness out of gay club culture and embraced it wholeheartedly while mixing it with black disco. “This was revolutionary,” says Nile Rodgers in the documentary. “It was the first time that it felt like people were non-judgmental. Everybody was fine with everybody else’s culture.”
“It is almost exactly the same moment that Studio falls and Rubell and Schrager are convicted of tax evasion and go to prison, that the HIV/AIDS crisis starts and the sexual revolution ends,” said Tyrnauer. “Society is changed forever, and the society of Studio, because this is a society driven by sexual expression and gay openness which was a relative rarity still in the ’70s. Showing the devastating impact of this cultural shift was very important.”
Studio 54’s closing in 1980 marked the end of an era, one that was defined in just 33 short months. “The brevity is important to it,” said Tyrnauer. “It’s the James Dean of discos: live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.”