Studio 54 Review

To this day disco surprisingly gets a raw deal despite being one of the most important musical and cultural movements of the past 40 years. It’s a genre that certainly lacks the respect it deserves given it provided the foundation for both EDM and rap - two styles that have dominated and shaped the sonic soundscape for the past 20-30 years. Through popularising the club scene, disco also promoted an inclusiveness rarely seen before, bringing together people of colour, women and the LGBTQ+ community into a space where they could escape day-to-day prejudice to simply be themselves - with the vast majority of songs being played dominated by female vocals.

Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary, Studio 54, looks back on the latter years of disco as seen through the short life of the world famous nightclub that became the centre of its world. It was run by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, two men who struck up a lifelong friendship after meeting at college and decided to make their fortune by creating nightclub heaven.

Rubell passed away due to AIDS-related complications in 1989 and Schrager opens up to reflect on the highs and lows of their Studio 54 creation for the first time since its closure in 1980. Schrager remains the dominant voice throughout but he is joined by various employees who helped bring this disco paradise to life, including everyone from set and lighting designers to bartenders and doormen.

Studio 54 came out of the ashes of an old CBS studio located in a seedy, rundown area of New York, which eventually turned out to be a blessing in disguise given the design of its infrastructure. Despite the lavish set design what they didn’t have time to secure before opening was a liquor licence, instead working round it with a series of one-night catering permits - a decision that would come back to bite them in the end.

Rubell and Schrager’s dream was to create the ultimate club experience and from the pandemonium of the opening night until its closure 33 months later Studio 54 became the place to be not only in New York but across the country and worldwide. It was the celebrity hotspot of the moment welcoming every famous actor, artist, and musician imaginable (we even see a young 21-year-old Michael Jackson waxing lyrical about the venue). Its selective door policy also left hundreds outside almost every night, with the door staff hand-picking a mixture of misfits, the young and beautiful and the rich and famous to party on behind closed doors.

Tyrnauer pulls out a fantastic selection of old footage from inside and outside the club, mixed with rare newscasts highlighting its various travails, along with an ample amount of photography that transport you right into the heady club nights. Sex and drugs were integral in creating the hedonistic aura that surrounded Studio 54 and there are plenty of stories to tell in that regard, with the constant supply of coke, quaaludes and everything in between eventually helping to bring it to a close.

Schrager admits arrogance got the better of them in the end and following a raid by the IRS that saw them charged with drug possession and skimming between $2-3million from the till they were sentenced to three years in the clink. Ultimately, Studio 54 was closed and the good times were over, coincidentally (or not) at the same time disco was coming to an end, a moment often summarised by Disco Demolition Night - which is also shown - the rise of AIDS, and the start of the get-rich-quick Reagan era.

The duo’s entrepreneurial flair saw them turn their hands to hotel ownership on release, eventually coining the phrase ‘boutique hotels’ although Rubell passed away before he could really enjoy the full benefits of their new empire. While Studio 54 isn’t exactly revolutionary in its approach, Tyrnauer evokes a key cultural period about a nightclub that managed to change the world despite its brief tenure.


A fascinating look beyond the disco balls and bell bottoms at a club that ruled the music world.


out of 10

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