Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Revisionist history clouds days of disco

Movie: 54

Posted on Tue, Sep 1, 1998 at 4:00 AM

***
54
Length: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Studio: Miramax Films
Website: http://www.miramax.com:8888/mm_front/owa/mp.entryPoint?action=0&midStr=611
Release Date: 1998-08-28
Cast: Mike Myers, Neve Campbell, Salma Hayek, Breckin Meyer, Sherry Stringfield
Director: Mark Christopher
Screenwriter: Mark Christopher
Music Score: Susan Jacobs & Coati Mundi Hernandez, Marco Beltrami
WorkNameSort: 54
Our Rating: 3.00

Robin Williams once said "If you remember the 1960s, then you weren't there." The same might be said of Studio 54, the Manhattan disco that served as the world headquarters of hedonism in the late '70s. Certainly, the makers of "54" are hoping you don't remember those days all too clearly, as they serve up a period piece that plays fast and loose with a few important details.

The appeal of Studio 54 was the realization that you would likely never get to experience it for yourself. Owner Steve Rubell (here played by "Saturday Night Live" alum Mike Myers) personally ensured that only the beautiful people would gain entry to his famed pleasure palace, setting a tone of high-fashion fascism that would define the New York scene for years to come. How then does one make that world accessible to an audience that would have been left waiting on the other side of the velvet rope?

Director/writer Mark Christopher chooses to do it through the eyes of Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a 19-year-old New Jerseyan whose good looks are the only ticket he needs to enter the glittering hot spot. But it's not Shane with whom we identify; it's his ugly-duckling friends and family we claim as our own as they witness his rapid absorption into a life of sex, drugs and cultural revolution.

That focus is lost as Shane leaves his humble beginnings behind to work his way up the Studio 54 hierarchy. He becomes a bartender and rubs shoulders with a coterie of the professionally fabulous, including coworker Anita (Salma Hayek) who dreams of becoming a singing disco diva, and a low-level TV star (Neve Campbell) who represents every fuzzy dream to which Shane aspires. His contact with Rubell, however, gradually reveals the filth at the root of an empire about to be toppled by a combination of financial impropriety and drug-aggravated incompetence.

The more that Shane is onscreen, the more the film suffers. He's just a pretty dunderhead, a faint echo of John Travolta's moronic-yet-soulful Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever." Hayek fares better, displaying some winning Latina spunk and a flair for comedy. Myers is surprisingly good as Rubell, striking subtler notes than expected in a portrayal that could have been little more than a caricature. In his signature scene, Rubell/Myers tries and fails to seduce one of his young, male employees, then vomits into a pile of his own cash.

The film would have greater impact if its historical grounding was firmer. The soundtrack is bereft of many of the true classics of the day, most of which have already been snapped up by rival studios for their own disco-related projects. Even Aimee Stewart's version of "Knock on Wood" appears to have been unavailable, performed here by Mary Griffin instead. The inaccuracy is all the more apparent when Griffin shows up at a performance sequence attired in Stewart's trademark headdress and sheath to lip-synch a lackluster cover of what many felt was a lackluster cover in the first place.

Licensing woes can't explain another blunder, a scene in which Shane is anointed into the ranks of the ultra-hip by getting to shake the hand of Andy Warhol. The real Warhol had a crippling fear of being touched, and would no sooner have shaken the hand of a strange bartender than kissed a spitting snake.

The biggest sham is the film's denouement, which implies that Rubell's eventual fall from grace inspired his followers to clean up and find straight jobs, the better to face the onset of the '80s. In reality, they merely bought themselves skinny ties and moved downtown to Danceteria, where they continued to have sex with strangers and shovel white powder up their noses. They don't deserve the redemption this film proffers, and we deserve a better history lesson.

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