There are some things iconic with disco from the 1970’s. There’s the film Saturday Night Fever, the music of Donna Summer, and the night club Studio 54. Co-founder Ian Schrager has mostly been quiet about his years of Studio 54 and how he and Steve Rubell ran it. In the documentary Studio 54, he finally breaks his silence.
The film begins as Ian Schrager is about to have the book of Studio 54 published. Ian starts talking about his upbringing. He grew up in Brooklyn. He came from a neighborhood mostly of working class Jewish families who worked in hopes that their children would have a better life. Ian met Steve Rubell in college. He attended Syracuse University where he earned a BA and later earned a JD from St. John’s Law School. It was through a fraternity at Syracuse that he met Steve Rubell.
It was the mid-1970’s. Two important things were happening. Firstly, Manhattan had lost its charm. It became dumpy and seedy with the times. Instead of being this place of charm and pizzazz, it had fallen on hard times where it was full of crime and X-rated lewdness and trashiness. Secondly was the emergence of disco music and its style of partying. Already in areas of Brooklyn and Queens, there were night clubs or discotheques that were very popular with their free-spirited dancing and flamboyant styling. The feel of disco came at the right time as it was right after the end of the brutal Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal left many Americans disheartened. It’s like Ian said, “People were tired of being serious.”
Ian and Steve took it into a chance for opportunity. The first thing they did was rent out a theatre that was originally an opera house and was last used as a CBS Studio. Steve and Ian hired workers, most gay men, for months to do all sorts of construction and all sorts of decorations. They also hired Jack Dushey as their financial backer. It was their vision to create a night club no one on earth had ever seen before. Even before opening day, they went around advertising to celebrities that this was the place to go to.
Opening day, Studio 54 is a big hit.Celebrities do show and lots of people from the public were let in too. From that period on, you had what could be an oasis from the real world as you had all sorts of people of race, gender, sexual orientation and class status getting in and having a good time. While people mostly shunned others out in their day-to-day lives, people came together in Studio 54 and had a good time. The place was seen as a must-visit for celebrities and they had a blast with the dancing atmosphere and the special one-of-a-kind effects and decorations in the place. News had come about that Studio 54 was the place to be.
However there were some realities that would come about. First of all Studio 54 was known for Ian and Steve to go out into the crowd of people outside and pick-and-choose who got in. They let in a lot of people, especially gay men, but they left others out. At first people were understanding, but a backlash would soon brew. Also there was the hidden secret that there were people using drugs in Studio 54. The club had a reputation for freeness and drugs were part of it. Then there was the fact that Studio 54 couldn’t wait for their liquor license at first and relied on catering permits during their waiting period to serve liquor. The authorities didn’t overlook that and soon they had Studio 54 closed temporarily. It put a damper in a lot of attendee’s lives. It was within time that Ian and Steve finally did get the liquor license.
However the success of that would only be temporary. Soon Steve gave an interview to Playboy that was ‘Only the mafia does it better.’ He also said ‘don’t tell the IRS about our practices.’ That’s all it took for the club to get raided. What was found was cocaine with the intent to traffic and $2 million in unrecorded under-the-table money. The arrests of Schrager and Rubell made headlines. Soon Studio 54 was no longer the place to be. The club reopened, but for a life of only a few months. The two hired Roy Cohn and had recruited an army of lawyers to defend their case. In the end, the two plead guilty and were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. They were let out after serving one year each.
After Studio 54, both Rubell and Schrager looked for other ways to succeed after their release. They tried their hand at opening new night clubs that fit with the 80’s times. Constantly before the opening, Rubell would be interviewed about Studio 54’s infamy. Rubell would confess that they did a lot of wrong things and that they both changed and smartened up. Rubell’s time to redeem himself after Studio 54 was short-lives. Rubell had AIDS and he died of it in 1989. Schrager was luckier as he would later open the night club Palladium and manage the Morgans Hotel Group. Ian married twice and has fathered three children. He even received an unconditional pardon from Barack Obama in January 2017; three days before Obama stepped down from his presidency.
The documentary is a film that allows Schrager to tell his whole story and break the silence of what he was holding back for a long time. Over the 35 years since his release from prison, Schrager has worked to make Studio 54 a thing of the past and establish himself as a responsible successful businessman. He has succeeded in doing so and even gives lectures for people involved in business.
However the film also reminds us of what we knew of Studio 54 and what we didn’t know. For a long time, it was seen as a place for celebrities, disco dancing and culture of freeness. It was a place where hundreds of celebrities came to visit or eventually became regulars. It was also a place which gave many gay men a sense of belonging. We should not forget that the 1970’s was a time when a lot of laws criminalizing same-sex activity were being struck down and declared unconstitutional. Gay men who were long seen as outsiders or scums of the earth were now given a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom and Studio 54 was the place in New York to do it. Even Steve Rubell who kept his homosexuality hidden from his own family found Studio 54 as a place where he could freely love.
One thing is that the image of Studio 54 as a place for celebrities and dancing would make it too iconic to the disco era. Many claim that it was the closure of Studio 54 that led to the end of the disco era and the slow fading of the freeness that came with it. We should remember that the 1980’s would come about heavy stock trading and Wall Street becoming the place to do intense business. There was also the AIDS epidemic as it not only took the life of Steve but the lives of many construction men and dancers. The documentary does give the sense that when Studio 54 died, that’s when these ugly realities came to be. The documentary even shows of Ian and Steve’s friendship and how it was something that still lived on after Studio 54’s demise. Upon Steve’s death, Ian felt it was like losing a brother.
Studio 54 is unique for that it tells all from those survivors who had a big impact in the business. There’s Ian and there’s Jack. There were also some men who did a lot of the construction and renovating. There was also Steve Rubell’s brother who told his side from what he witnessed of Steve. The film includes a lot of imagery through photos and footage. The film also includes a lot of disco music that was part of Studio 54’s heyday. Seeing Studio 54 almost takes you back to that time and you can feel the freeness of that era.
Studio 54 is the ideal documentary for those who still fondly remember the disco era of the 1970’s. It brings back a lot of memories and tells you things you never knew about the place to your surprise.
For my first feature of the VIFF, I saw a Czech film entitled Patrimony. The film makes for an entertaining comedy about a subject one would not find comedy material.
The film begins with a funeral for a musician: a trumpeter. The wife, a fashion designer herself named Eva, finds herself lonely and she feels she will be left completely alone. The daughter Tereza is also hurting. She calls his phone just to hear the answering machine to hear his voice. Meanwhile she’s also struggling with her battle with cancer. Despite being helped by her husband, she feels she needs time to be with her mother.
As the daughter visits, the first thing they do is lay his ashes to rest; at least the urn as the mother wants them on his cactuses. However the daughter stumbles across a possible secret in her father’s coat. She sees a drawing of her father and a child. It’s not hers. She notices it’s from a boy names Tomas. Tereza has always been raised to think she was an only child. Could her father have fathered a child with another woman? Even her mother confesses that both she and Ludwik had extramarital affairs. It is from that revelation they decide to go on a trip to find Tomas, using Ludvik’s Volga Gaz 21.
The first visit is with family members in a nearby town. They learn more about Ludvik and his past. They also encounter a lot of crazy happenings inside the house as she has three daughters of various ages to look after. As they go on to their next place of visit, both women discover a sense of freedom when they go from place to place from country farms to town carnivals. Eva herself finds herself interested in other men. However Tereza is not immune from realities as she still has her cancer battles and the status of her marriage in question. Also revealed from Eva is that she was just as adulterous as Ludvik during the marriage.
The next place they visit is an elderly person’s home. One of Ludvik’s ex-lovers is there. She herself has a lot to say about Ludvik and even gives away another big secret they never knew. No doubt that gives Tereza a lot of concern on her mind. At the same time, it appears Eva doesn’t want the ‘love son’ of Eva to be a reality.
It’s then a visit to a family member out in the countryside. They’re a couple who farm apple trees. The husband used to lead, but he now has a mental condition where he’s despondent most of the time, but suddenly becomes the farm boss in an instant. During the visit, her husband comes to assist. It’s there where he confronts her on the status of the marriage. She gives him the hard truth. Just as he’s stating his case, the farm head goes back into his phase as the ‘farm boss’ and orders those around to get to work and pick apples. All including Eva, Tereza and her husband help out.
It’s there where the husband confesses his truths about the marriage and gives Tereza a day to think it over. It’s also through that visit that they learn the Eva knew about Tomas all along and even played step-mother at times. She kept it a secret from Tereza the whole time. The film ends as the two are in pursuit of Tomas and Tereza has made her decision about the marriage.
There are two unique things about this film. The first is that it makes a comedy of what would consider to be a dark situation in people’s lives. One would think the grieving process of a death, a bout with cancer, and learning of a family secret would not combine into a comedy, but it does. It does it very well with a mix of humor and drama. The film however doesn’t stray away from the emotional aspect of the situation and what has happened. Nevertheless the blend of the humorous and the serious works here.
The second thing about the film is that you think the story is about one thing, but it turns out to be about something else in the end. You think that the film would end with the daughter and the mother seeing the son Tomas. However it doesn’t end that way. Instead it’s about hidden truths unraveled. At first it’s made to look like a truth Eva doesn’t want to know, but instead it’s a truth Eva tried to hide from Tereza. Who knew that Eva made a better closer mother to Tomas than Ludwig did? At the same time, it’s about a mother/daughter relationship as the two are slowly healing together as they’re going on this pursuit. The rockiness of Tereza’s marriage is brought to light, but that too is helped by the trip, in a surprising way.
One of the common themes of the film is the topic of death and the nearing of the end of one’s life. It begins after the death of Ludvik. It starts with a focus of how Eva will live without Ludvik. It also focuses on Tereza and her bout with cancer. She thinks it’s fatal while the mother reminds her that her chances of survival are still very good. It deals with family and ex-lovers who have either felt the strains of aging or are themselves in the closing chapter of their lives. It’s a theme which is dealt with in good sensitivity in this film but also blends in humorous elements. It’s a tricky job to do where the fine line can easily be crossed, but Jiri succeeds in doing it.
Jiri Vejdelek directs and co-writes with Iva Jestrabova an excellent story that’s full of real feelings and emotions, but also made comical at the same time. Eliska Balzerova does a very good job of balancing the dramatic with the comedic in her acting. Tatiana Vilhelmova is also very good as the daughter coping with everything around her. However the two show an excellent mother/daughter chemistry that makes this story work. The supporting characters also did their jobs well as their characters came across as believable and very three-dimensional.
Patrimony is a very smart Czech comedy that’s very entertaining. It follows a smooth story line, but it doesn’t end the way most would anticipate it to. Maybe the plot you thought it would be about wasn’t the main plot after all.