Once upon a time, Peter Gatien ruled clubland in New York. With spots such as Limelight and Tunnel, the impresario who wore an eye patch figured out all the post-Studio 54 strategies for getting people to queue up in order to empty their pockets. Chances are you know this already, but familiarity doesn't breed boredom in Billy Corben's documentary. Watching Gatien talk today, from exile in Canada and behind sunglasses instead of that patch, viewers can still get a sense of his charm. Corben doesn't probe, and Limelight works better as an unofficial history of an Old New York than it does as the definitive portrait of Gatien. Reporter Frank Owen—who chronicled for the Village Voice the scandals in the clubs when Gatien was still on top and then the attempts by local cops and the feds to shut down the entire operation during the Giuliani '90s—enjoys playing the role of raconteur here, as do the drug runner and ex-con talking heads. The archival footage is great: It's all skuzzy VHS and fuddy-duddy local news reporters trying to explain club culture. Moby drops by to talk about how the lower Manhattan underground of the time shaped pop music for the entire country. But when Gatien and his early crew whine about how there's no exciting club life in New York anymore, they sound like bereft record executives lamenting the decline of the monoculture. Of course New York still has an underground—even if Palladium is now a dorm for NYU kids.
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