They say that pop culture has a tendency to roll back over on itself every 20 years or so. What’s old becomes new again not only because the people who were kids 20 years prior have now grown up, earned money and got nostalgic, but also because those same people have worked their way into the various creative worlds. It’s the reason why I’m seeing so many shows with references to movies I loved as a kid as well as reboots of the same, but also the reason we saw such a big uptick in 70s-based projects in the late 90s, specifically ones centered on disco and the world that grew up and died around it.
I would have been 15 when 54 came out, so I don’t have any personal connection to the heyday of disco in the late 70s. Hell, it was dead and buried by the time I was born in 1983. And yet, I have a strange second hand nostalgia for that era because of the disco era’s resurrection and examination in the late 90s. I became a huge fan of That 70s Show, which is one of the all-time best coming of age sitcoms around in my book. But there were also films like 54, The Last Days Of Disco and even The Summer of Sam that all came out around 1998 and 1999. At that same time there were a ton of TV specials about what really went on behind the velvet ropes of Studio 54, a legendary nightclub in Manhattan run by a guy named Steve Rubell who was an incredibly shrewd club owner, but not very good at hiding his less-than-honest business practices. Studio 54 was the place to do just about anything and everything, assuming you could get in.
That’s the backdrop for the 1998 film by Mark Christopher that focuses on young Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a Jersey kid who pines to be in the big city where he just knows he’ll become rich and famous like his hero Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a fellow New Jersian who stars on a soap opera. Eventually he makes his way to Studio 54 where he literally has to leave his old life behind (they don’t let his friends in) and winds up getting a job. From there he makes a whole new group of friends including coat check girl/wannabe singer Anita (Salma Hayek) and her busboy husband Greg (Breckin Meyer) and does his best to enjoy his new social status when it doesn’t go against a moral code with roots back to his home life in Jersey.
At the end of the day, 54’s story isn’t all that mind-blowing. It’s your basic “lower-middle class kid gets a look at the world of the rich and famous and discovers its not as genuine as he though” story. But, the gilding of the time period is very engrossing if that’s something you’re interested in. All the actors really dove into the characters and seemed to dig deep into some emotional places that all get left on the screen like so many empty bottles after a big party. I wasn’t overly familiar with Phillippe outside of his standard horror appearances in the 90s, but I thought he did a quality job of actually going through the emotions instead of just the motions.I especially enjoyed his various interactions with Ellen Albertini Dow’s Disco Dottie. And, man, Mike Meyers did a killer job of bringing the off-kilter Rubell to life on the big screen.
I read that Chistopher’s intended cut of the film had about 30-40 extra minutes and a variety of extra subplots that were completely cut by Miramax, something that wasn’t uncommon back then. He got his hands on the extra footage and put together a longer version that I would like to see some day, if possible.