(2009) Documentary (Magnolia) Peter Gatien, Michael Alig, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Moby, Ed Koch, Howard Safir, Sean Kirkham, Michael Caruso, Edgar Oliver, Frank Owen, Steve Lewis, Benjamin Brafman. Directed by Billy Corben
Once upon in New York City there was a club scene like no other. It was in the late 80s, early 90s and it just about put Studio 54-era discos to shame. Four of them – The Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA and the Palladium – were run by the same guy.
His name was Peter Gatien and he was notorious in his day. He was a Canadian, Ontario-born (although it was said he rooted for the Montreal Canadiens which was not unlike a native of the Bronx being a lifelong Red Sox fan) and wore a buccaneer-like eyepatch which was, contrary to popular rumor, not an affectation. He’d lost an eye playing hockey as a youth.
His clubs were like nothing else seen before or since; full of pulsating music and lights, sweaty bodies and essentially a place where new music was created. Moby has been quoted as saying that without these clubs there would have been no techno. These places were like stationary raves and in a sense were incubators for youth culture which has affected popular culture to this day.
It wasn’t always easy. Gatien started out selling jeans and after his hockey accident used the money to open his own nightclub in Ontario, which he parlayed into a club in Atlanta and then four in New York. In his heyday he was the toast of New York, name-checked by the Fun Loving Cannibals and THE man to know if you wanted to be somebody in that town.
But with notoriety like that comes attention, some of it of the negative sort. Drugs were rampant in Gatien’s clubs and they were sold to the point where some referred to the Palladium as a “drug supermarket.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani used Gatien’s clubs as a focal point for his anti-crime campaign and eventually after failing to pin any drug-related arrests on Gatien, nailed him for failing to pay his taxes (well after the clubs began to shut down) and had him deported back to Canada with only $500 in his pocket.
This after making millions from his cash cows. It was a precipitous fall after a remarkable climb. Gatien remains an engaging character and he’s surprisingly forthcoming in his interviews here. Many of those who were around Gatien – managers, bartenders, DJs and such – all have something to say. Most have never attained the pinnacle of hip that they achieved during those years and they still carry that borderline arrogance that comes from being Somebody.
One of those interviewed here is the notorious Michael Alig, who in a drug-induced haze murdered and dismembered fellow Limelight scenester Angel Melendez. Alig ran several parties at Gatien’s clubs and in fact Gatien was an early suspect in Melendez’s murder.
Corben peppers the documentary with animations and psychedelic images which I imagine gives you more of a feeling of being in an altered state as you watch. The movie is really a rise and fall affair with the beginning on Gatien’s meteoric rise much more interesting than the details of his ignoble fall. And yes while I get that “the higher the rise the further the fall” lesson, that’s essentially a story we’ve seen literally thousands of times, some in more compelling ways.
What I missed here was more of a look at how Gatien’s clubs affected pop culture and their lasting impact on modern society. Really what this turns out to be is a movie made more for the people who were there in that time and place. While I wasn’t a part of the New York club scene, I was part of a club scene in a different city at roughly the same time so some of it is recognizable to me. Fortunately I didn’t see the same kind of drug use and trade to the extent that it was here in my part of the world, although that could partly be ascribed to my own personal naiveté as well as that most people don’t want to transact drugs in front of a journalist.
Be that as it may, this is probably more of interest to those who clubbed in the late 80s and early 90s in general and in New York City in particular. It was an era that has come and gone, and will never return. So in that sense the movie has nostalgia value and on that level works like a charm. Gatien is an interesting enough subject that at least for the first part of the movie his engaging character is worthwhile. It’s only when the story of his downfall starts that your attention will start to wander. Gatien (and by extension the filmmaker) blames many of his troubles on a vindictive government but he’s only partly right – Gatien allowed that rampant drug use and sales to take place in his clubs. They were HIS clubs as he is quick to tell you and thus his responsibility. He has to shoulder at least some blame for his fall – and you get the sense he doesn’t see it that way. That might be the most tragic element of this story.
WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating look at maybe the nadir of all club scenes. Gatien is a fascinating character.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The second half spends far too much time on the legal battles that went on, less time on the lasting impact of the scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and alcohol and drug use depicted.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Gatien’s own daughter, Jen.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60,335 on an unreported production budget; might have made money but more likely just broken even or lost money.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Party Monster
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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