Sex, drugs and disco?
The popular New York disco Studio 54, run by entrepreneur Steve Rubell, epitomised the hedonistic lifestyle of the late 70s. Rubell’s aim was to create a place where ordinary, but good looking people, could mix with celebrities for a party that would never end. He created a place where the rich and famous and the beautiful people converged to party, and the famed nightclub became a symbol of the excesses of the late 70s and early 80s. The club was also a magnet for star struck youngsters, attracted by the allure of fame and fortune. But they all learned at personal cost the pitfalls of compromising one’s values for success.
One such star struck youth was Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillipe, in one of his earlier roles), a naive but handsome teenager from New Jersey who is initially drawn to the club by the allure of excitement and escaping his dreary existence and working class background. He captures Rubell’s eye and is quickly invited into his inner circle, where he is seduced by the drugs, money and sex on offer.
Anita (Salma Hayek) works as a coat check girl at the club, but she has aspirations of becoming a singer. Her husband Greg (Breckin Meyer, from TV series Franklin And Bash, and films like Can’t Hardly Wait) works as a busboy at the club, but he lacks her ambition and is content with his lot in life. But eventually even he is seduced by the palpable air of corruption and temptation. The most poignant character though is Disco Dottie (played by The Wedding Singer’s rapping granny Ellen Albertini Dow), who somehow finds fulfillment through her nightly forays into the club. Her tragic death symbolises the end of an era and is one of the film’s more haunting moments.
Although he never attended the club in its heyday, Texas born writer/director Mark Christopher explores the excitement of this era through the eyes of a number of fictional characters whose lives intersect at Studio 54. Christopher captures the decadent atmosphere beautifully. The club comes alive, and the pungent sweaty smell of sex and corruption virtually leaps off the screen. Christopher’s film about the last days of disco covers much the same territory as Whit Stillman’s 1998 talkfest titled The Last Days Of Disco, but is is far more enjoyable as it lacks the pretensions and emotional emptiness of that film. Although it covers some of the same territory – the garbage bags of money disappearing and the IRS probe that eventually closed down the influential club – it is far more entertaining and moves along with more energy.
Christopher directs with an assurance that belies the fact that this is his debut feature. When it was first released back in 1998 though, producer Harvey Weinstein cut about 20 minutes from the film, which caused much friction between him and the writer/director Mark Christopher. Now Christopher has released the director’s cut of the film, restoring it to his original, grittier vision. Importantly he restores the homoerotic tone of the material, as it explores the relationship between Shane and Greg in more depth. It also explores Shane’s rise and dramatic fall from grace in more detail.
Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski’s suitably dark visuals give the film the atmospheric visual style of classics like Cabaret and Cruising, which was a big influence on Christopher’s vision for 54.
54 can also be seen as something of a companion piece to Saturday Night Fever, which captured the excitement and music of the disco era. But there was a sort of innocence to that film in which a young John Travolta found freedom and meaning on the dance floor, which offered an escape from his blue collar existence. 54 looks back on those times, and explores some of the same sort of emotional terrain, but not through rose coloured glasses. This is a darker edged look at the era and looks at the consequences of the greed and excess of the times.
Christopher crams the soundtrack full of disco hits that recall the era, and it will resonate strongly with audiences.
The film made a star out of Phillipe, who exuded a raw sexuality that positively smouldered across the screen. His performance as the naive Shane propelled him briefly to the forefront of that generation of hot young actors. Neve Campbell brings a touch of class to her smaller role as the narcissistic soap star with whom becomes obsessed. But the biggest surprise is Myers, who is cast against type as Rubell. Normally known for his more comedic roles, Myers delivers a more intense characterisation here and is quite creepy and sinister as Rubell. He captures Rubell’s complex nature, portraying him as selfish, manipulative, neurotic and a not very sympathetic character.
54: The Director’s Cut will strike a responsive chord with those old enough to remember those glory days. It does for the disco era what Boogie Nights did for the porn movie industry.
Director: Mark Christopher
Cast: Ryan Phillipe, Breckin Meyer, Neve Campbell and Salma Hayek
Release date: 11 June 2015 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television