Barely Staying Alive

54's version of "Disco Inferno" is more like heck than Hell

Rubell's belief that he can openly flout the law is an honest mistake--he thinks that being beautiful puts you above the rules, which is usually correct, and that his position makes him such a beautiful person, which is incorrect. Christopher's best directorial touch comes near the end, during Rubell's homecoming party at 54 after his prison term. When we see him, dressed in evening clothes, his face is in shadow. He's become the Phantom of the Disco--a powerful yet unrequited aspirant to his ideal of beauty, relegated to lurking in the dark.

What a mistake to shuffle this juicy performance to the background of the film, but this is sadly typical of the film. In the end narration, Shane gripes that the new corporate owners that took over 54 after Rubell and Schrager's crash made the club "safe and boring." But that's exactly what Christopher has done to 54.

But so what? The received wisdom on this film is likely to be that it's fumbled a great subject. Well, no doubt it could have been far better, but is it really such a great subject? Rubell seems to have been an amusing fellow, but he was also an ingratiating, nerdy wanna-be who craved popularity and got it by excluding anyone who wasn't beautiful and/or rich and famous. This story is retold every day, in every high school. The fact that at Studio 54 it was done by grown-ups doesn't, in itself, make the story an epic.

Directed by Mark Christopher.

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