Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell set out to create “the ultimate nightclub” and still got more than they bargained for. Studio 54 came to define an era of freedom, joy, and excess with as spectacular of a rise and fall as the music and fashions found in its doors.
Schrager gives compelling and honest testaments throughout, often with a smile that betrays a youthful greed he only half regrets. Rubell died of AIDS in the 1980s and though there is plenty of archival footage to give him screen time, his absence is no less tragic or symbolic. He’s supplemented by an impressive depth of characters – everyone from former bartenders, doormen, and patrons to former FBI agents and Nile Rodgers. There are the obligatory tales celebrity, sex and drugs but the documentary was not defined by them, a pleasant and welcome choice. At one point Rubell is doing a live interview when a young Michael Jackson walks in and the two are genuinely chummy. That summarizes the kind of access and notoriety these two men enjoyed more than any Page Six folklore could have anyway.
In an era that has often been grossly sensationalized, Studio 54: The Documentary does a fine job at illustrating the big picture in earnest. Yes, there was an undeniable cultural impact, given how Studio 54 amalgamated, enhanced, and then represented changing times. But Rubell and Schrager ultimately didn’t set out to change the world. They wanted to be successful and to have a lot of fun doing it.