Studio 54: It was a dizzy, drugged, dangerous disco world
A new documentary tells the true story of those free-loving times
“Studio 54 wasn’t a nightclub. It was a kind of social experiment,” says Ian Schrager of his creation, the legendary seventies New York venue Studio 54. He is speaking on camera as part of Matt Tyrnauer’s feature documentary, Studio 54, and it’s the first time in 40 years that he’s told the true story of those freethinking, troubled times. If the film’s ostensible subject evokes a now-familiar world of Halston dresses and disco music, it actually tells both a broader story and a subterranean one. The wide angle is cultural and political; the private tale is Schrager’s, and it’s equal parts glitter and grief.
“It’s a story people think they know, but they don’t really know the full picture,” says Tyrnauer, by phone from New York. “Which for me is a blinking light saying make this film!”
The story we think we know is of a nightclub founded in the late seventies by Schrager and his business partner Steve Rubell. They set it up, implausibly, in a part of Manhattan that was otherwise recommended only to people who wanted to get mugged. Studio 54 represented the high point of hedonism – an impression conveyed in the film through music, strobed collages of vintage photographs, and in glorious found footage, shot on 16mm film by New York college students at the time. People are spilling out of clothes, sweating, kissing, dancing. In news footage, Rubell proudly talks to reporters, off his head on Quaaludes.Then there are the gossip columns: Cher, Truman Capote, Helmut Newton, Grace Jones, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli were all there. It was, some noted, the beginning of the age of celebrity, although Andy Warhol, who frequently attended, might have begged to differ. The press came up with a hyphenated shorthand for the Studio regulars: “Halston-Liza-Bianca-Andy”. It was such a longed-for experience that desperate crowds gathered at the door, many offering the bouncers services in kind. As the British journalist and socialite Anthony Haden-Guest recalls, the scene on the street outside was “like the damned looking into Paradise”.But Tyrnauer’s point is about inclusion rather than exclusion. Some might look at characters like the drag queen Rollerena or the elderly Disco Sally, and suggest they were akin to freaks, welcomed for the purposes of entertaining the beautiful people. But those who were there insist that Studio 54 was a genuine haven of acceptance. “Everybody was fine with everybody else’s culture,” the disco hero Nile Rodgers tells Tyrnauer. “Anyone that was allowed in was totally free inside.” Barely a decade had passed since the Stonewall riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King. The social experiment referred to by Schrager was this: could utopia exist inside by night, while out on the streets some people took their lives in their hands just heading to the shops?What’s more, the experiment was conceived by two men who were breaking the boundaries of class. “I’m a big proponent of the insanity of people going around saying there’s no class in the US,” says Tyrnauer. All you have to do, he suggests, is read an Edith Wharton novel and you’ll know what class in America is. He argues that the sixties were the waning days of that established structure. “There was a huge vacuum for other people to rush into,” Tyrnauer explains. “Among those were some really smart people from the outer boroughs who were not supposed to be the leaders of New York society. It happened in the blink of an eye, before anyone really knew it was happening. And the poster children for that in New York were Schrager and Rubell. They were lower-middle-class kids who looked at the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn and said: That’s where I want to go. It’s a primal narrative.”
Seen this way, disco becomes not just the sound of fun – and there were many incarnations of that at Studio 54, including some that required washable rubber surfaces – but the soundtrack to freedom. Falling as it did between the invention of the Pill and the advent of Aids, Studio 54 represents, for Tyrnauer, “a magical, never-to-be-repeated time”. Although when I tell him he’s made it so convincing I briefly felt, watching the film, that I’d like to live there, Tyrnauer laughs. “I think it would have been smelly, and I think the floor would have been very sticky,” he says.A film major at university, Tyrnauer spent years writing long-form reportage for Vanity Fair, and is now mostly a filmmaker. In both cases, he immerses himself in a world and then finds the story: Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) is set in the realm of high fashion; Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016) is about Jane Jacobs’s activism against the brutal razing of old New York; and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2017) tells the unflinching story of a movieworld pimp. If there’s a theme that links the films, Tyrnauer says, it’s that they’re about “closed systems” or “mini worlds”.
When Studio 54 opened in April 1977, Tyrnauer was in primary school in Los Angeles, “editing the classroom newspaper, avoiding dodge ball”. His experience of the seventies was largely negative: “Really bad carpet,” he riffs, “avocado-coloured kitchen appliances. Older kids with unkempt hair. As a little kid, I was very scared of the seventies.”For Ian Schrager, the party lasted 33 months. That’s how long Studio 54 existed – though its fame leads one to think it must have been much longer. In late 1978, Steve Rubell boasted that they’d been so successful “only the Mafia made more money”. The police duly turned up at the club on December 14. They found drugs in cupboards and cash in rubbish bags, plus a second set of accounts hidden in the ceiling. Schrager had $400,000 in cash in the boot of his car. Rubell’s mother was the bookkeeper. They skimmed, not 10%, but 80%, of what came in. It was, Schrager tells Tyrnauer, “the Richard Nixon of skims”. The pair were charged with tax evasion and went to jail after a final party in 1980.
It’s at this point in the film that Schrager’s story takes a turn. Though now one of the most successful hoteliers in the world, on film he becomes uncomfortable, falls apart. Schrager and Rubell received a reduced sentence in exchange for becoming government witnesses. Schrager’s father was a gangster – an associate of the infamous Meyer Lansky, known as “Max the Jew” (though his name was Louis Schrager). And Schrager snr would not have been impressed, Schrager feels, that he didn’t do his time.
The two men emerged, regardless, into a changed world: Ronald Reagan’s eighties, the Aids epidemic. As Tyrnauer puts it, “the be-yourself, find-yourself, express-yourself seventies comes to a crashing halt”. Rubell died of Aids in 1989, at the age of 45.The plot, if a documentary can be said to have one, has a potentially dangerous moral arc, about acceptance and its comeuppance, liberation and its downfall. But Tyrnauer doesn’t see it that way. He wants to be clear that he thinks freedom is, as he drily puts it, “a good thing”. It’s just that, although he says he wouldn’t want to tie it up in a neat bow and offer Studio 54 as a historical textbook, “a lot of things were happening at once that add up to a kind of end of days story”.
Does the story have much to tell us for our own time, I wonder? Tyrnauer thinks it does. He refers to the backlash – a would-be movement that termed itself “Disco Sucks”. “You have to remember, the late Seventies was the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Think about someone in the Midwest who’s lost their job and looks at the scene in the gossip columns from Studio 54 – there were clever politicians who used that as a chance to demagogue about sinful, decadent, ‘other’ types of people who were a threat to the white-picket-fence society that real Americans had fought for. There was an uprising of indignation.”He pauses to let this sink in. “Remind you of anything?” he says.
Studio 54 was released this week.
– © The Daily Telegraph