DVD review: “Studio 54: The Documentary” (2018)

“Studio 54: The Documentary” (2018) 


Running Time: 98 minutes

Directed by: Matt Tyrnauer

Featuring: Ian Schragerand Steve Rubell

Andy Warhol:“The key of the success of Studio 54 is that it’s a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor.”

This week sees the release of yet another documentary on DVD, the rather unimaginatively titled, “Studio 54: The Documentary” (2018) which is based mainly around the time period of the 1970s as well as the geographic location of the nightclub in New York, Studio 54, which was a haven for celebrities who populated the club for a period of about three years before it was forced to shut down amongst a few controversies. This time period and club has already been the subject of a narrative movie in the Mike Myers led bomb “Studio 54” (1998) which did little to inspire audiences to visit cinemas. Interestingly there is another film far superior to both of these that while fictional takes the feeling of what both of these film try and capture, expertly making it one of the best films about the time in the un-missable “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), written and directed by Whit Stillman. There are after viewing this movie quite a few issues, one of the biggest is that at times it feels like a long advertisement for times gone by, even though some of the problems that the club faced were very serious, not only only that, the last fifteen minutes feel like an advert for the new business venture one of the co-founders is involved with now, which to me is distasteful to the extreme. It not only sets him up as some kind of business genius but belittles what has gone before, his attitude is Trumpian to the next level, we even see him organizing a book about the club which is obviously all based on once removed celebrity.

There has been no doubt at all that 2018 was the year of the documentary, it has been an excellent year for documentaries not only on streaming or DVD but in cinemas which is a trend that goes against what many people may have expected. However I find this to be exactly what should be expected especially with the concentration of so-called ‘fake news’ that now exists on the internet, coupled with what has been coming from the White House under the Trump Presidency. In fact there was a thought that cinematic documentaries might be a thing of the past especially with the success as well as saturation of Disney-fied blockbusters invading multiplexes, in fact audiences have been flocking to cinemas to seek out stories about real people making real differences in times and places where many others have been marginalised and made powerless by the people in charge in their respective times. Some of the great, as well as critically received, not forgetting making money documentaires at the box office are: “Wont you be my neighbour?” (2018), “Three Identical Strangers” (2018), “Jane” (2018),  “McQueen” (2018), and my personal favourite “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017) with so many more. What this says about audiences is that they will seek out true stories told in the relative first person that are not only inspiring but are direct counter programming to the politics of the day as well as the lies that are being produced by a President who is not only artificial but hate fuelled. My belief as a fan of documentaries is that this genre will only gain in popularity, with the coming years being a boon as well as revealing the importance of truth in the media as well as the importance of researching decisions made by the electorate. It is no surprise that the rise in fake news, Donald Trump, racism and may other hate fuelled elements has been answered by artists creating documentaries that prove there can be positive outcomes when people choose to buck the system as well as believing in others, differences, freedom and most of all, love. Where this falls is definitely in the camp of revised history much like the recent “Westwood” (2018) documentary which seeks to remake the past to match a present that seems at odds with what a documentary like this should be about.

Studio 54 was the epicenter of 70s hedonism – a place that not only redefined the nightclub, but also came to symbolize an entire era. Its co-owners, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, two friends from Brooklyn, seemed to come out of nowhere to suddenly preside over a new kind of New York society. 

This documentary has been directed by relative newcomer Matt Tyrnauer who does not seem to want to find a real story behind the club instead we are treated to interviews with people that worked at the club as well as the only surviving founder of the club which is problematic at best. This is a documentary told from one point of view only, it is as subjective as one could get as there is not a real story being told just an hour and a half of revisionist history that attempts to advertise the remaining founder as some kind of genius who once he came out of jail was able to parlay his name into a chain of hotels, which we hear about ad nauseam in the closing part of this movie. There is a conspicuous absence of interviews, in the present, of any of the famous guests of the club from the 1970s many of who are still alive, as well as any kind of counter point to the argument that is being made. All the interviewees seem to want to seem to say is that drugs are cool, alcohol is cool, disco was cool and because we were able to combine these we are geniuses, and its only because the establishment found out we were breaking a lot of laws they stopped it. Also disco shouldn’t have ended and we were railroaded into pleading guilty and going to gaol, boo hoo them. There seems to be a common thread in documentaries as well as based on true event movies based on decades old stories where people have broken the law, then later say they were forced into pleading guilty or taking the blame for crimes they say they had no part in, I am sure this has happened and there are plenty of examples of this. However when someone runs a nightclub and does not have the required licences as well as avoiding paying tax, on top of that dealing cocaine I have no gripe that they would be sent away, just because they were successful at one thing.

The other weakness as well as a bit of a con is to show have a large proportion of this movie told in archival footage of famous people with present day voice overs which on the surface lends meaning, that it is treated with some kind of truth. Let us be clear there is no truth in that, it is just some famous people dancing from forty years ago, there is no real story being told here just a lot of smoke and mirrors. We also only have the now deceased partner being shown in old photographs and an interview he once took part in from the 1980s, which again only tells one side of a story. There is also much to tie his HIV related death into the wider story of the AIDs crisis and to endear audiences to the club through the many deaths that this disease caused, but for what actual narrative reason I am not sure, it seems cheap to me.

If anything this entire documentary seems timed to coincide with the opening of hotels as well as the publishing of a book about the club which is a tenuous reason to create the movie in the first place. If you want to watch a film about the time period then seek out “The Last Days of Disco” it is superior in every way.

Avoid this at all costs it is not worth your time.

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