Limelight: Billy Corben's new documentary screens at O Cinema
Manhattan's clubland outlasted AIDS and outpartied Andy Warhol, but it couldn't survive Rudy Giuliani.
In his new film, making its Miami premiere this week at O Cinema, local genius Billy Corben wandered from his traditional muse, South Florida. Limelight tells of the tribulations and court trial of former New York nightclub king Peter Gatien, who was targeted by the feds and NYPD in the late '90s after ruling the club world for almost two decades. The Canadian-born impresario was seen by some as responsible for drugs and violence in a city poised for renovation.
This story came to Corben and business partner Alfred Spellman through Gatien's daughter Jen. She produced 2007's Hounddog, a film with a controversial rape scene including child star Dakota Fanning. Jen approached the pair about telling the enthralling tale of her father.
In the city that never sleeps, Peter Gatien ruled the hours between twilight and sunup with a single watchful eye for detail. Yes, a single eye. After losing one as a young man in a hockey accident, he took his settlement and opened a denim store in Cornwall, Ontario. At his first bar, he booked a not-yet-famous touring band, Rush.
Personality-wise, Gatien is the "anti-Steve Rubell," according to the director. He never shat where he ate. Painted in the film as a dedicated businessman, the owner of Palladium, Tunnel, Club USA, and the infamous Limelight curated a scene by using theatrical elements, smarts, and good instincts. He knew culture, fashion, music, and party trends.
Limelight was housed in a historical Episcopal church in the heart of the city. It was such a fantastic success that when Corben told his grandfather he was working on a film about the club, the old man said, "The one in the church? Oh, yeah, your grandmother and I went there."
The film not only tracks the Giuliani and DEA crackdown on the nightclub scene in New York by prosecuting Gatien, but also examines many other thematic threads. "We like the micro/macro element of it that we were able to capture," Corben says. Telling the story of a city in a time frame through an interesting character, Limelight explores '90s New York, its drugs, racial tension, the abuse of power, and the decline of a culture.
Drugs and power are typical themes in Corben's films. "We did Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja this year — that was our '70s pot movie. We did Cocaine Cowboys — that's our '80s cocaine movie. And now we have our '90s Ecstasy movie," he says. "We've got the whole drug-by-decade trilogy here."
The movie centers on Gatien's legal complications, but Gatien is not the only person telling his story. Club kid and convicted murderer Michael Alig, raver "Lord" Michael Caruso, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and Village Voice writer and Clubland author Frank Owen are also interviewed, painting a fuller snapshot of the scene.
Owen says in the film: "Clubs used to be the incubators of culture." This culture expanded far beyond the "What's your line?" game Alig describes where white lines of K, Ecstasy, and other drugs were laid out and snorted for folks to guess what they had just ingested. Alig and his friends also brought fashion, drama, and flair to nightlife. Lord Michael not only carted MDMA across the ocean from London, but also introduced a new kind of electronic music to America — at 140 bpm, raves became the rave. Thierry Mugler designed one of the VIP rooms at Gatien's Club USA. And Yoko Ono hosted parties at Limelight.
Gatien's clubs bred culture. "One of the lasting legacies of that scene and of Limelight and of Peter Gatien's creative empire was this idea, evidenced by the incredible cross section of New York glitterati that showed up to the premiere," Corben observes.
It's no surprise that drugs are a part of party culture. People's bodies want to sleep, but napping folks don't dance. MDMA was a drug that brought people together. Alig humorously recalls that thanks to the substance, "All of a sudden, I felt like my friends were so fucking beautiful." Eventually, the quality of the drug, cut with new substances, declined. Corben thinks the DEA's crackdown on Ecstasy affected its safety. "You've got to have something to fight in a war on drugs," he says, adding that once they go underground, drugs become dangerous.
"There's a Footloose element to all of this," Corben says, noting that Limelight is "set against the backdrop of the Giuliani revolution in New York and how it transformed the city and how Peter and his clubs became a casualty of that culture war."
You don't have to have snorted cocaine with James St. James to appreciate the intrigue of this tale. Corben packs in a ton of history and looks at myriad factors leading to Gatien's demise and the fall of club culture in New York.
Definitely, Gatien's story is captivating, but other micro aspects of the film are the most entertaining. That Giuliani's "quality of life" campaign brought down this mammoth industry speaks to the New York of today and of abuse of power. And Old footage of Jay-Z and P. Diddy at Tunnel is priceless.
Drugs guide the movie's visual elements via trippy, rave-worthy animations. Melting rooms and visual distortions place the interviewees in an E-tastic experience. The film humorously and tastefully captures that era.
Corben will return home for his next project: taking a crack at Liquid nightclub's Chris Paciello, perhaps the Gatien of South Beach. The filmmaker believes that Paciello's story demonstrates the "rise and fall of the renaissance of South Beach — an era that ended with the opening of a T.G.I.Friday's on Fifth Street."
To a certain extent, Limelight explores that sentiment, what Corben calls "the mall-ification of America." The film shows that though Giuliani made New York more livable, culture suffered as a result.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.