For a breath, about halfway through, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Studio 54 actually suggests the experience of a visit to its subject, that Kubla Khan of discotheques. The footage of the mob eager to get in is epochal but also familiar. Less so is what follows: Someone back then had the good sense to film what happened next for those chosen to ascend to disco nirvana. A camera pushes into the Studio’s storied West 54th street doors, revealing a curiously empty lobby, grand and drab at once, a purely functional, unceremoniously lit reminder of the building’s recent dormancy and long history (it was the CBS studio home of Captain Kangaroo!). As the camera glides through, a speaker rhapsodizes in voice-over about stillness, anticipation, the thump of the party raging through the next set of doors, the most exclusive boogie wonderland of them all.
Then the doors open, and Studio 54 gets back to being what it mostly is, a scrapbook celebration rather than an urgent immersion. Footage of Studio life — the lavish lights, the heaving mass of beautiful people — plays here mostly in chaotic montage. We get chopped-up testimonials from Studio stalwarts, B-roll glimpses of the promised land gathered by TV news crews, and many assemblages of still photos, with an emphasis on celebrities and/or breasts. Studio co-founder Ian Schrager, today an impresario of boutique hotels, is on hand to talk us through the good times, squirm a bit about the bad and speak lovingly of his Studio partner and eventual co-defendant, the late Steve Rubell. Helped along by news clips, the filmmakers do better with the crash-and-burn business story than with the actuality of the Studio experience.