Opened in 1978, Studio 54 was a scandalous paradise of sex, drugs, and freedom. Though for us today it’s a cultural icon that is revered for both its massive success and crippling failure. More than just a steamy reel of half nude celebrities partying the night away, this documentary is a revelation of a historic cultural shift in America…centred around a discothèque.
Directed and written by Matt Tyrnauer, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, Valentino: The Last Emperor, we see his journalistic background shine through as he untangles the complex and interwoven relationships between the establishment, its creators, and of course the crowd of people (i.e A-list celebrities) who were welcomed nightly – particularly focusing on the relationship between Studio 54’s founders and co-owners, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell.
Subtly undergirding the entire documentary is the story of Steve Rubell’s life. If you’re a fan of the Kardashians, you’d fall in love with Steve. He’s the life of the party, the enigmatic socialite who’s practically Studio 54 incarnate. But of course, what’s a documentary without shedding light on the dirty, yet necessary, truth beneath the veneers of fame. The disparity between Steve’s seductive life and his closeted private life demonstrated the prevalent social issues of that time – a time of austere homophobia and racial intolerance, coupled with post-Vietnam War anxieties. Studio 54 was a paradise of inclusion and acceptance for Steve as much as his patrons, a place everyone can escape to.
The facade of freedom that Studio 54 cultivated was more addictive than the pounds of drugs that was circulated inside. Gays, transvestites, white, black, whoever you are and whoever you wanted to be all became possible in the premise of Studio 54. But its promise of euphoria and safety just couldn’t last. Like every Sodom and Gomorrah story, Studio 54 came falling down. It met its end after coming under public as well as legal scrutiny – a result of Ian and Steve’s own arrogance and pride.
Part cautionary tale, the documentary also presents issues and struggles that society today can still very much relate to – like the struggles of coming out as homosexual, the stigmas people face, and that pulsating desire for liberation and freedom to be who you want to be. At the same time this work is a retrospective on progression in terms of acceptance and inclusion, we also see how much further we have yet to go in challenging the perversity of our liberty.
Whether it’s for the glitz and glamour, the occasional nip-slips, the funky soundtrack, or the provocative message it relays, Studio 54 is a show you’ll definitely leave with some kind of takeaway. It’s an easy watch; a good gel of light and heavy tones consisting of scandal to keep you entertained and intellectual substance to keep you engaged.