David’s Review: 54 Director’s Cut

David Reddish
Image source: Broadway Tour, Flickr.

It echoes in the memory: 54, that disco movie, that time Mike Myers tried a dramatic role, that flick where Ryan Phillippe is shirtless the whole time.  While the latter could be true of any number of films in the late 1990s, something about 54 keeps us from forgetting it altogether, even if the film, when it debuted was pretty, well, forgettable.

I recall watching 54 for the first time in summer 1999 on VHS, and wondering what the Hell that was supposed to be.  The film was a confused mess of half-baked plot threads decorated with some of the great music of the late disco era, and introduced me to the legend of the infamous New York club, Studio 54, a hedonistic wonderland of fluid sexuality, drugs, celebrity and outright insanity.  The movie didn’t quite do it justice, but then, what movie ever could?  Studio 54 embodied the naive innocence of the 1970s before AIDS and cocaine addiction poured cold water on a populace proclaiming free love and free thinking, and, in an odd way, predicted the current era of reality television and YouTube celebrities–pretty people doing pretty stupid things.

54 also has become somewhat notorious in cinephile circles as one of those impossible to get unless you know the right people bootlegs, which reveals director Mark Christopher’s original intentions and an all together different film.  After years of whispers, Christopher has finally debuted his restored cut of the film, scheduled to hit Blu-Ray and streaming video services later this year.  This new version integrates an additional 45 minutes of footage and drops large portions of the theatrical version, which were added in last-minute reshoots.  The result is a more cohesive film, but not a very good one.

Ryan Phillippe plays Shane, a Jersey boy with a blond perm and great abs who discovers Studio 54 and quickly decides to swap out suburban life for one of nighttime excitement as a bartender.  He moves in with his co-workers Greg (Brecken Meyer) and Anita (Salma Hayek) and spends his work hours under dancing lights and alongside celebrities, lorded over by the puckish club owner Steve Rubell (Myers), a real-life figure who only let pretty people in to his parties, making celebrities out of nobodies and leaving stars outside in the cold (Cher was very famously refused entry one night).  Greg, like Shane, dreams of making big money as the head bartender and Anita wants to become a disco recording artist.  The currency of Studio 54, however, comes in the form of sex and drugs, which leads Shane and Anita to rendezvous with paramours like record executive Billie Auster (Sela Ward), and Greg becomes a high-class drug dealer.  If that seems like a soapy invitation to disaster, it is.

The new footage expands on plots only hinted at in the original cut, in particular, Shane’s life as a gay pinup model and bisexual hooker.  Rubell’s advances on his staff, in particular Shane and Greg, are more prominent here, and Neve Campbell’s role as soap star Julie–introduced as a foil and love interest for Shane in the theatrical version–is relegated to only a few scenes becoming less a lover than a comrade.  Anita and Shane have a steamy affair, and, in perhaps the most notorious cut made to the story, Shane and Greg almost do too.  The love scene between Greg and Shane, if it even deserves the category, was reportedly cut when preview audiences weren’t comfortable with the two leads sharing a kiss.  While the scene works as part of the overall plot of sex and hedonism for fame, Phillippe isn’t particularly credible, and Meyer’s own discomfort with the scene is apparent.  In an era where male hearthrobs win Oscars for playing gay characters, the content of 54 seems downright silly.  Now-a-days it seems hard to imagine a single same-sex kiss alienating audiences, or, for that matter, the two actors hung up on playing the scene.  Then again, let’s face it, times have changed.

54 is an ambitious film in it’s restored form, and Myers and Ward both turn in strong performances.  Hayek delivers the goods too, though her role is so underwritten, and Anita is so selfish that we never care about her much.  Phillippe and Meyer are less fortunate since the movie doesn’t want to examine their fluid sexuality too closely.  Christopher obviously wants to channel the style of Saturday Night Fever and in particular Cabaret–one of the new scenes is a direct homage to the polyamorous love affair from that film–but never finds a way to make his three leads compelling, and doesn’t focus on the intricacies of how Rubell ran Studio 54, which later would lead to the club’s closure and Rubell’s indictment for tax fraud.  How ironic, then, that a movie which wants to chronicle the drug and sex-fueled adventures of a pretty people, offers the superficial, but little else.