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

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.

RATING 3 / 10