New York's Legendary Club Days: In the Limelight

One of the Spotlight selections at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, the feature documentary Limelight by drug-specialist filmmaker Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) explores the story of nightclub owner Peter Gatien and the creative drug-infused party world of New York in the 1980s and early 1990s. At Gatien's places like Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA, disco queens and Club Kids mixed it up with celebrities and the bridge and Tunnel crowd, partying under strobe lights all night long to the throbbing rhythms of techno and hip hop. While girls danced in cages, partygoers found discrete places for quick sex or brief romance, and commonly, they found Ecstacy. The film contends that Gatien, an eye-patched business genius surrounded by outlaws and poseurs, fell victim not to his own questionable associates but to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's quest to clean up the city.

Peter Gatien reflects on his days as New York's king of clubs in Limelight.
Image: Tribeca Film Festival

Though Corben at times loses his core story focus, the documentary does prove an eye-opener for those thinking Charlie Sheen invented the wild man. Back in the late 1970s, when the rising disco sun ended with nights of dancing, Ontario native Gatien created his own highly successful role as the impresario of nightlife. After ventures in Miami and Atlanta, in 1980 he found in New York the thing he was looking for, a former Episcopal church on the corner of 6th Avenue and W. 20th St. in Chelsea. After paying $1.7 million for the property and pouring more than $5 million into its renovation, Limelight opened its doors in 1983, and the party started.

During the early days, from roughly 1983 to 1985, the club business suffered, as the film documents, from fears about AIDS. But with a growing public awareness about how AIDS is contracted, anxieties diminished and patrons returned to the clubs. Gatien's empire eventually expanded to Club U.S.A. on 218 W. 47th St., the Palladium on 14th St., and Tunnel, a vast multi-room space in the Wild West of Chelsea. The business boomed when associates concocted potent cocktails of techno, raves, and Ecstacy. Love was in the blood stream. When Mayor Giuliani cranked up efforts to clean up the city, Gatien and his clubs came into sharp focus as major perpetrators of illicit activity.

The former Limelight, now Limelight Marketplace. 6th Avenue and W. 20th St.
Image by Walking Off the Big Apple

The documentary mixes delicious archival footage, news reports, interviews with many of these associates (and one notable figure, Club Kid Michael Alig, from behind bars), and on-screen recounting from Gatien himself, fixed in a neon-suffused bar scene. Credit goes to director Corben for maneuvering around potentially sticky personal politics and for not disclosing too much too early about the eventual outcomes of the key players. It's important to note that the nightclub king's daughter was one of the film's producers, so it's fair to raise questions vis-à-vis the portrayal of Gatien as victim and scapegoat. While the film makes for a good story of crime, unjust exile, and city politics, its attempts at cultural history prove somewhat weak. If we're going there, the creativity of disco culture may be overplayed, yet more could have been made of the important role Tunnel played in East Coast hip hop, for example. Yet, if we flash-forward to the present, Limelight answers a lot of questions. Once there was a party where everyone was invited. Where did that scene go?

Note: At the Tribeca Film Festival, Magnolia Pictures acquired world rights to Limelight. According to media reports, the company plans to release the film in theaters this August.

Updated at 5:47 p.m.: In order to make a few clarifications, this is a slightly revised post from one published earlier.

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