'Limelight': Dancing to a Great American Crime Story

This story features plenty of the usual suspects: opportunistic thugs, opportunistic law men, and the pride which comes before a fall.


Director: Billy Corben
Cast: Peter Gatien, Michael Alig, Ed Koch, Moby.
Distributor: Magnolia
Rated: Not rated
Release date: 2012-01-24

At the peak of his powers, Peter Gatien owned no fewer than four mega important New York City clubs: The Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA. But the Canadian-born entrepreneur owned more than the clubs, he owned NYC nightlife in the '80s. and brought together the city’s most fabulous minds as Limelight (and others) became centers for techno, acid house, and a kind of home to the likes of Moby, the Beastie Boys, Madonna, and one of the film’s central characters: MDMA (ecstasy).

The drug commingled with others, including cocaine inside the club walls and for a long time there was a tacit tolerance. (Ecstasy remained legal well into Limelight’s existence.) That is, of course, until the Rudy Giuliani years, when the famously tough mayor launched his crackdown on drugs (and just about everything else). Within what must have seemed like mere moments, Gatien found his empire crumbling and his place in his adopted homeland disappearing.

He’d conquered loss before and had used it to his advantage. But this was something different, something more difficult.

Gatien’s business life began with an accident; he lost an eye in a hockey mishap and with money from a modest legal settlement he opened one, then two jeans stores. Before long he had purchased his first club, Aardvark. Canadian rock icons Rush performed there early on, but rather than becoming Canada’s answer to Bill Graham, Gatien set his sights on the US and opportunities afforded budding businessmen.

He opened a club in Florida, then Atlanta, appealing to the zeitgeist of excess in the age of disco. His clubs were large, fabulous, and filled with people who would have never gotten past the ropes at Studio 54. He landed in the Big Apple in 1983, opening Limelight in a former church, and ushering in a new era of excess and bringing together subcultures that would not previously have had reason or chance to commingle.

Using archival footage and interviews with those who were there––including Moby––the film moves at a pace appropriate for Gatien’s meteoric rise and subsequent fall. The story of Limelight features plenty of the usual suspects: opportunistic thugs who pry their way into the periphery of the legitimate business world, opportunistic law men who pry their way into the periphery of subcultures in order to bring them to an end, and the pride which comes before a fall. There’s also murder––one of the major players in the scene, Michael Alig (who appears in this film), is currently incarcerated for the 1996 killing of Angel Melendez––as well as tax evasion, more drugs, and some hurt feelings.

Gatien never fully recovers from probes into his business, and the story of his 2003 deportation is genuinely touching and probably unfair. Neither the man nor the company he kept emerge as overly sympathetic––although the former king of NYC nightlife proves worthy of our respect. But Limelight is not a morality play, either. Instead, it lands in some curious twilight between, capturing our interest and asking us to consider a closer look at an important moment in American life, and a figure who, for one prolonged moment, transformed nightlife not just in one city but around the world. It's a surprisingly moving and entertaining tale that demands repeated viewings.

Extras include informative deleted scenes and the film’s trailer.


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