Studio 54

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Studio 54 Movie Poster Image
Docu about '70s club has sex, drugs, and disco.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 98 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Don't cheat on your taxes. Innovators are sometimes reviled as much as they are praised. Looking back, Schrager laments certain behaviors. "What were we thinking?" he asks.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Steve Rubell was a gregarious social butterfly who enjoyed being the public face of the Studio 54 collaboration. Ian Schrager is an introvert and design savant who preferred to remain in background.


The IRS raided the club and arrested two of the club's partners and owners.


Waiters and busboys go shirtless, wear short shorts. Dancers bare their breasts on the dance floor. Bare buttocks are briefly seen in old footage, stills. A balcony floor was covered in rubber for easy cleanup after guests had sex there. People are seen kissing and dancing seductively. A penis is seen in a painting. "Sex was in the air," says one Studio 54 patron. Blow jobs are mentioned.


"F--k," "s--t," and "blow job."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

People smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, use many other drugs, including cocaine and quaaludes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Studio 54, a 2018 documentary, takes its title from the name of the short-lived New York City social experiment/discotheque of the 1970s created by two college classmates from Brooklyn. Interviews with those who were there describe a night club filled with celebrities (Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Andy Warhol, Liza Minelli) mixed with beautiful and bizarre people, dancing, drinking, doing drugs, and having sex with abandon. In montages of stills from the era, the ecstasy and freedom of a place that welcomed all races and all sexual orientations are on display, and nudity is seen a few seconds at a time. Two of the club's owners were charged with drug possession, fraud, and tax evasion, and did a few years of time. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," and "blow job."  

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What's the story?

The heyday of the famed night club STUDIO 54 was historically situated on one end between the upheavals of the Vietnam War and Watergate and, on the other, an economic recession, the advent of the Pill, which pried open many sexual restrictions, and the AIDS epidemic, which convinced many that sex could be deadly. The film chronicles a bygone era, the onset of an age of fascination with celebrity that persists today, and also a time when so many in the LGBTQ community remained closeted because of social stigma and worse. Interviewees applaud the fact that although many ordinary people were turned away at the door of the club, it welcomed those made to feel different by society for their sexual orientation. One observer recalls that gays and trans people mixed freely with straights, and that male celebrities allowed themselves to be seen with gay companions at the club. According to contemporaries, co-owner Steve Rubell's boasting brought the club down as he bragged to a journalist about how much money the club was raking in. The IRS raided the place, allegedly finding a second set of books, as well as stashes of quaaludes, cocaine, and cash hidden on the premises. After Rubell and his best friend and partner Ian Schrager did their time, they successfully opened two New York City hotels. Rubell died of AIDS in 1989, but Schrager went on to become a famed hotelier. He publicly speaks about their collaboration for the first time here, showing remorse and contrition for their wrongdoing but also pride for the originality of their singular creation.   

Is it any good?

Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer's documentary does a good job training a magnifying glass on a moment in time when attitudes about sexual mores and sexual orientation were beginning to change. Studio 54 focuses on one particular element of the change, a night club, and all the ways in which the work and vision of its upwardly mobile creators -- Rubell and Schrager -- were innovative and cutting edge. But did a New York hot spot that specialized in sex, drugs, and disco nurture along a cultural change already brewing in America? Perhaps, but other influences were also at work.

More troubling, the film doesn't question at all the wisdom of valuing and worshipping celebrity and hedonism. It doesn't question the way the club shunned what Rubell dubbed the "bridge-and-tunnel" crowd, partiers who came from New York neighborhoods that weren't as cool as Manhattan. The irony that Schrager and Rubell were themselves bridge-and-tunnel guys who made it in Manhattan isn't explored at all. And parallels between the Studio 54 era and the excesses of Berlin in the 1930s are ignored, a glaring omission given how badly things turned out for Germany not too long after. Teens old enough to understand what would drive revelers to gather and share hedonistic nights may wonder what all the fuss is about.     

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the way Studio 54 approaches the gay contribution to the club's success. How does the filmmaker use clips to give a sense of how gay people, otherwise marginalized in the 1970s, felt when they were at the club?

  • The club owners deliberately courted celebrities, offering special invitations and freebies. How do you think the club's success and its constant presence in mass publications and in the media helped promote the current culture and its preoccupation with celebrity?

  • How does this compare to other documentaries you've seen?

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