Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary looks at how two best friends from Brooklyn conquered New York, only to see it crumble before their eyes
The epicentre of 70s hedonism, Studio 54 became a monumental magnet for beautiful stars, casual sex, and mounds of cocaine. A den of excess that defined its own rules by welcoming the ostracised, the queer, and the fabulous, the nightclub enshrined itself as an enduring and contradictory symbol of openness and exclusivity. Chronicling the rise and fall of the most talked-about club in history, Matt Tyrnauer’s latest documentary Studio 54 tells the story of two best friends from Brooklyn, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, who conquered New York only to have it crumble before their eyes. Combining never before seen footage with brutally honest interviews, Studio 54 is a parade of colour, creativity and celebrity which pulls back the curtain on the club’s hidden history.
With clarity and feeling, Tyrnauer’s remarkable doc masterfully demonstrates how even our most culturally potent and transformative phenomena can be crippled by carefree naiveté and unbridled ambition. Ahead of the film’s release this Friday, we sat down with the director to find out more about how Studio 54 helped further queer rights, what it meant for co-founder Ian to revisit fraught memories of the duo’s meteoric rise, and why we won’t see the birth of another Studio in our lifetime.
What prompted you to make this documentary? Studio 54 is such a recognisable name, what new light did you hope to shed on its history?
Matt Tyrnauer: For me Studio 54 is one of those stories everyone thinks they know but don’t really. That’s a great space to operate as a documentary filmmaker. You know there’s the interest, but you also know the full story has never been told. Part of the reason for that is that Ian Schrager never talked and Steve Rubell died.
How did you convince Ian to speak to you?
Matt Tyrnauer: He and I have known each other for a while. Studio predates me, and the whole world of disco is not something that’s a primary interest to me, but the world of New York, and the culture and the entertainment of the 70s is of interest to me and Studio is a pillar of that. I got to talking with Ian about the idea of finally saying what he had to say – he was reluctant. We think of Studio 54 as this extraordinary, one-of-a-kind thing and everyone wants to go back there, but for Ian, it’s fraught with unpleasant memories. What most people fail to remember is that Studio 54 was one of the biggest flame outs in history for its founders. It didn’t end well. They were prosecuted for tax evasion and ended up going to prison. I think, in many ways, it was a really bad memory for Ian. Even though he went on to have a great second act in American business by founding the concept of the boutique hotel, this is territory he doesn’t want to explore. We eventually got to a place where he was comfortable. He was extraordinarily open and absolutely winning when admitting to his mistakes.
Did he not want to revisit those times because it was a painful memory for him? Or because he hoped to preserve the image of Studio 54 as a glorious thing?
Matt Tyrnauer: I really think it’s the former, I don’t think we can understand how painful it was for him. You’d think oh, you know, you go to some country club prison for a year and you’ll be OK. I don’t think it’s OK, I think it was a total set back. That’s the beauty of the story, overnight they go from nothing and nobodies, to the arbiters of society and culture, in a city where that’s almost everything. It hadn’t happened before and I don’t think it’s happened since. Then they lost it all very quickly. And they paid a price. I think it was a really tough thing to look back on. We don’t see it that way because we see them as icons and survivors, but if you’re the man that went through it, it’s fraught with a lot of things we can’t understand.
How much of an impact do you think Studio 54 had on advancing the cause of LGBTQ rights?
Matt Tyrnauer: Studio is part of a number of LGBT moments that were happening throughout the 70s. There was increasing awareness, increasing outspokenness, and increasing involvement in the political sphere from LGBTQ people (at the time it was called Gay Liberation, which now sounds archaic). Studio was a explosive place for that because even though the constituency was mostly gay it was a real mix. It integrated lots of different pieces of culture and it was an openly gay friendly place in New York – that’s very significant. It was a very different time 40 years ago, there was a big gay presence in New York City but I don’t think you could say that it was mainstream. Studio, by contrast, was a welcoming home. I think if the HIV/Aids crisis hadn’t happened, the gay movement world would have kept expanding and it would have had a very different trajectory.
There seems to be a surge of interest in drag and ballroom culture at the moment, and I think this documentary really fits into the trend. Do you have any sense of why there’s such a willingness to tell these stories now?
Matt Tyrnauer: I’m not really sure why. In the 90s Gucci, led by Tom Ford, was the clearest and strongest expression of a late 70s revival. You began to see the Studio 54 aesthetic infused throughout the culture starting with the fashion world. I don’t really know, I would guess that club culture and dance culture cycles through lots of revival moments.
Do you think there’s something about Studio 54’s celebration of fantasy and escapism that feels particularly compelling in the current moment?
Matt Tyrnauer: I think Studio 54 and the kind of escapism it offered is always compelling. It had it all, it’s got glamour, it’s got drugs, and sex, and set design, and dancing. If there’s anything that’s never going to go out of style it’s all those things. It’s the perfect fantasy. You could compare it to James Dean and Marilyn Monroe – live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse. It was snuffed out in an untimely way and that makes it all the more alluring.
“I think Studio 54 and the kind of escapism it offered is always compelling. It had it all, it’s got glamour, it’s got drugs, and sex, and set design, and dancing” – Matt Tyrnauer
Do you think people are right to say it could never exist again?
Matt Tyrnauer: I do. It takes on new forms – warehouse parties in Brooklyn or Berlin. Burning Man is maybe a near equivalent, it shares the same expression of joy, of individuality, of unbounded good times, something very over the top that people go all in for. Its presence is still felt but the exact form that Studio 54 took will never come back. New York is a totally different city now, the constituencies of Studio 54 just don’t exist in the same way that they did at the time. It’s a less innocent time, we all have cameras on our iPhones, we’re all social media addicts, the Studio was in the last gasp of the old analogue world. All of those elements had to come together to make it. It was very specific to a time and place which you can’t go back to.
With its downfall, and the court cases, fines and jail time that resulted – do you think it was made an example of?
Matt Tyrnauer: Oh definitely. It’s technical, Studio was born of the last moments of anarchic New York. After the city had been brought to its knees by the financial crisis it operated with rules of its own. There was a kind of anarchy to it, there was no money to enforce things, all the codes from buildings to liquor licenses were handled in ways that were slightly shady. As the 70s came to a close the city became more prosperous and a new type of politician arose out of the corrections that happened in the post-Watergate world. All these things conspired to bring that wild and wooly New York to an end and I think Studio was one of the first victims of that dawning new era. I don’t think they realised it at the time, they were unwitting victims. Their lawyer, Roy Cohn, was the mayor of that old New York, he was shepherding Ian and Steve through this process and made all the wrong manoeuvres because he was playing by an old rule book that ceased to exist.
“It was a seemingly wonderful party that came to a terrible end, and I think that’s something that’s worth looking at again” – Matt Tyrnauer
Do you think the club’s open and inclusive attitudes towards sexuality and gender was also a factor in its downfall?
Matt Tyrnauer: Yes, I think that’s valid. As disco became more popular, and the media exploited it, and the fashion industry exploited it, it culminated in this cultural shift. It became a culture war. It resonates with what happened in the last election in the US, and to some extent with what’s happening in Western democracies around the world right now, so it has an unexpected resonance. The whole thing collapsed in the early 80s, that period came to a close, Reagan was elected as president and with him came a different attitude. We became less conducive to outlandish public expressions of sex, sexuality and mixed racial environments. Studio 54 had all these trappings, and attributes which were easy to vilify for people with less open minded and accepting agendas.
Is there one theme or idea you want people to take away from the film?
Matt Tyrnauer: I think the lost world of gay life is really haunting and good for people to see. We live in a comparatively good moment in queer history, it’s not without troubles, but you’re able to get married and have kids and live in a relatively discrimination free environment in most big cities in the western world, even if you’re not straight. If you see what was going on in the gay world of New York in a pre-HIV era, that’s a valuable thing. It was a seemingly wonderful party that came to a terrible end, and I think that’s something that’s worth looking at again. It’s easy to forget the sad details of something that was lost.
Studio 54 is in cinemas nationwide from June 15.