OUTFEST, our country's premier LGBTQ film festival, opened last night with a disco-themed gala to commemorate its 2018 edition, which will feature the most diverse programming in its history. That's all still to come, but last night's opening feature selection shows the festival knows how to throw a party. The program began with this year's Career Achievement presentation to D.E.B.S. director Angela Robinson, who offered an inspiring political speech, turning the Orpheum Theatre's attention away from her hugely successful career as an out queer director of color in Hollywood and towards mobilizing the audience for the midterms.
The celebration continued with the LA premiere of Matt Tyrnauer's new feature documentary Studio 54, which enters theatrical release this month. Unlike his previous documentaries - and his upcoming film Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, also at this year's OUTFEST - Studio 54 focuses not a single transformative figure but on a collective project: The iconic, short-lived Manhattan nightclub that defined the disco era and became an international media phenomenon before collapsing into colossal legal jeopardy.
Tyrnauer still leans towards biography, and the film is centered around Ian Schrager, now an international hotelier and one of the most influential and successful men in the history of hospitality. Schrager here tells candidly the full story of the nightclub from his point of view, which he has previously been famously reluctant to do. He comes off as alternately kingly and vulnerable, owning his successes and failings, and speaking movingly about his late gay business partner Steve Rubell, then the more public face of Studio 54.
Though the club was always packed with celebrities - and the archive footage contains a wealth of exciting personalities - Tyrnauer prefers to speak at length with lesser-known participants in the scene: The Broadway designers who gave the venue its legendary stages, doormen, bartenders, press, and fabulous regulars. Must-have experts on the disco era add some excellent context: Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers and Warhol biographer Bob Colacello.
The real stars of the film are Tyrnauer's intrepid researchers and editing team. As an archival dig, the film is a master class. Hours of recently discovered, undeveloped 16mm film is woven together with star-studded stills, home movies, news footage, a Saturday Night Live sketch, and more. The soundtrack is loud, rhythmic, and very gay.
Studio 54 loses steam when it gets deep into the legal weeds of the tax evasion situation that ultimately landed Schrager and Rubell behind bars. But Tyrnauer wisely situates the club in a fascinating sociopolitical context, veering across various historical moments integral to club's legacy: Watergate, the Carter White House, gay liberation, AIDS, the dawn of birth control. (Gay supervillain Roy Cohn makes repeated appearances in archival footage, earning persistent hisses from the audience.) That being said, Studio 54 is an accomplished time capsule from a storied era in popular culture, and it set a groovy mood for the festival to come.