Once upon a time, Peter Gatien ruled clubland in New York. With spots such as Limelight (erected inside a church) and Tunnel (which truly was a labyrinth of debauchery), the impresario who wore an eye patch (for legit reasons) figured out all the post-Studio 54 strategies for getting people to queue up in order to empty their pockets. But chances are you know this already—especially if you’re a longtime reader of the Voice. A vet of this paper, reporter Frank Owen chronicled the initial scandals that occurred in the clubs when Gatien was still at the top—and then the extended-remix attempts by local cops and the feds to shut down the entire operation during the Giuliani ’90s.
But familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed boredom in Billy Corben’s documentary, which takes its title from Gatien’s flagship club. Watching Gatien talk today, from exile in Canada and behind sunglasses instead of that patch, viewers can still get a sense of his charm. Corben doesn’t probe, and Limelight works better as an unofficial history of an Old New York than it does as the definitive portrait of Gatien, who likes to tell his story—perhaps the only thing he has left. Owen enjoys playing the role of raconteur, too, as do the other interviewees: drug runners and ex-cons, and the laughably compromised erstwhile federal informants. The archival footage is great: It’s all skuzzy VHS with wild tracking issues and Betamax clips of the clubs themselves as well as of successive generations of fuddy-duddy local news reporters trying to explain club culture. Then Moby drops by to talk about how the lower Manhattan underground of the time (can you imagine such a thing now?) shaped pop music for the entire country.
Given all this interesting raw material, it’s mildly disappointing that the filmmakers tie it together with such cheesy connective tissue. The new talking-head footage is lit with bright purples and greens; these people worked in clubs, get it? And there’s seemingly never a transition that goes by without the accompaniment of an animated disco ball wiping across the frame. It’s on-the-nose, for sure, but also unsuccessful because the sheer chintziness of these effects runs counter to the ruthless professionalism and keen aesthetic of Gatien and his early crew.
Those guys, by the way (and yes, they’re all guys), are still remarkably—overly—proud of their achievements. Even the ones who ratted out their ex-partners still seem to feel a latent bonhomie. But when they whine about how, post-Giuliani, there’s no exciting club life in New York anymore, they almost sound like bereft record executives lamenting the decline of the monoculture. Of course, New York still has an underground—even if Palladium is now a dorm for NYU kids. Gatien knows better than most how the fringe just moves to new territory whenever the mainstream glare becomes too bright.