Reviews

'54': A Tame Look at an Era that was Anything but Tame

Mark Christopher's 54 has little to say about Studio 54, New York in the '70s, or anything else.


54

Director: Mark Christopher
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Mike Myers
Distributor: Lionsgate
Studio: Miramax
Release date: 2012-03

From all accounts, Studio 54 was a happening place in the late '70s. If you were cool enough to make it past the doormen, you were admitted to a magical world where glitter and intoxicants (legal and otherwise) flowed freely. The dance floor was filled with beautiful people, and you might catch a glimpse of a celebrity like Andy Warhol or Truman Capote. Studio 54 was not merely one nightclub among many, but a venue that captured the mix of high and low that was a key aspect of the New York City zeitgeist of the period. It was not only the worst of times (in 1975 the city was essentially bankrupt) but also the best of times, a period marked by great creativity in popular culture (e.g., hip-hop was developing in the Bronx while disco ruled Manhattan).

A legendary nightclub that flourished during a richly creative period in popular music—doesn't that sound like a great topic for a film? It does indeed, but the great movie about Studio 54 has yet to be made. It's certainly not 54, written and directed by Mark Christopher, and released in 1998, the same year as Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco. Stillman's film is more interesting than 54, but treats the club scene as a backdrop; in contrast, 54 places Studio 54 at the center of its story, yet still fails to capture the feel of either the club or the era. More damning, it also fails to tell a story of any particular interest, leaving the viewer with some well-executed set-pieces held together only by a lot of wishful thinking.

It's not entirely Christopher's fault, because the released version of 54 is quite different from what he originally presented to Miramax. Most notably, the original version of the film included a gay subplot that received negative reactions from screening audiences. That portion of the film was cut, new scenes were shot, and the result is a second-rate version of Saturday Night Fever that retains the central storyline, but loses nearly everything else of importance. Lest you think 54 might profit from a little reflected glory, let me assure you that this comparison mainly serves to remind you how well Saturday Night Fever captured the feeling of lives lived by young people in a particular time and place, and how utterly 54 fails at the same task. The comparison also reminds you that Ryan Phillippe may be cute, but he's no John Travolta.

Phillippe, who was nominated for a Razzie on the strength of this performance, plays Shane O'Shea, a teenager from New Jersey who gets lucky on the Studio 54 line and is invited past the velvet ropes on the strength of his buff physique. Shane's abs, and his naïvete (or essential goodness, if you're willing to take the film's word for it) facilitates his rapid rise within Studio 54. He becomes a busboy, then a bartender, and leaves home to move in with two friends working at the club: aspiring singer Anita (Salma Hayek) and her husband Greg (Breckin Meyer).

Shane develops a crush on a soap opera actress (Neve Campbell), only to learn that (alert the media!) sometimes people do things for their careers that they're not terribly proud of. Manager Steve Rubell (Mike Myers, in the most impressive performance of the film) is arrested and goes to jail. An elderly club regular, Disco Dottie (Ellen Albertini Dow), dies on the dance floor, bringing the party momentarily to a halt. We're meant to believe that observing other people's tribulations causes Shane to grow up, but either Phillippe is incapable of conveying such complexity, or the film was simply so butchered that this essential character development got lost along the way. The end result is that 54 feels like a dutiful re-enactment with the expected celebrity "cameos" (look, there's an actor playing Andy Warhol!) and enough references to real historical events to keep you hoping for more substance and fewer lazy clichés.

The overall attitude 54 takes toward its subject reminds me of the late George Hickenlooper's attempts to deal with the Warhol scene in Factory Girl. Despite high production values and a committed performance from Sienna Miller, Factory Girl failed, in large part because the director was more concerned with hammering home his moral judgments on the characters (you can almost hear him clucking his tongue in the background) than in telling a story about them. 54 has a similar vibe: it pretends to commemorate a nightclub, and an era, noted for excess, yet doesn't have enough courage to really embrace that ethos. Instead, the film comes off like a high-budget cautionary tale, concerned that if it shows anything attractive about Studio 54, some young and innocent viewer might be corrupted and stray from the path of righteousness.

The end result is just sad: a film so timid and afraid to offend anyone that it ends up communicating virtually nothing about the club, the era, or anything else. Apart from the inevitable dullness of such a treatment, it can't be historically accurate: Rubell wasn't pulling in millions a year because no one was having a good time at Studio 54.

The extras package on the Blu-ray release is quite skimpy, consisting of an uninvolving music video of "If You Could Read My Mind" and trailers for several other films that have cast members in common with 54.

3

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image