If you were young and living in New York in the eighties and nineties then chances are you partied at one of Peter Gatien’s nightclubs. At his peak, Gatien owned and operated The Limelight, The Tunnel, The Palladium and Club USA, servicing over 50,000 customers in a single weekend, earning a hundred million dollars a year.
In the new documentary, “Limelight” filmmaker Billy Corben assembles footage and interviews with the likes of musical artist, Moby and former Mayor Ed Koch, spanning Gatien’s 20-year reign as King of the Night and his meteoric demise at the hand of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Hailing from Cornwall,Ontario, Gatien began his career with a club in Miami(also named The Limelight), that became the city’s hottest disco in the late seventies. It proved so successful that he opened a second club in Atlanta. Customers couldn’t resist the glass floor looking down on a pool full of polar bears in the winter, and sharks in the summer. The club was a hit, and Gatien was two for two.
Next stop,Manhattan’s GreenwichVillage–a church on Sixth Avenue morphed into The Limelight, a hedonistic nightclub for gay, straight, drag queens, artists, musicians and any bridge or tunnel person looking to feed a craving for sex, drugs and all-night dancing in a former house of worship.
Cocaine fueled eighties gave way to the warm fuzzies of ecstasy in the nineties but something else changed.New York elected its first Republican mayor in sixty years, Rudolph Giuliani. Not amused by what he found in Manhattan’s club scene, he set out to restore some decency, ignoring the fact that the city’s vital nightlife had long been a fertile scene for artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Musically the club scene spawned numerous styles including techno and house, launching the careers of people like Moby and Jay-Z.
Gatien was found not guilty of dealing drugs– the jury cited a lack of evidence. But the phony charges were soon followed by accusations of tax evasion. This time the charges stuck. In the end, Gatien was deported back to Canadawith $500 in his pocket, the same amount he started out with.
Oddly, the filmmakers underplay this decisive episode in Gatien’s career. In fact, he is portrayed as a maverick businessman unfairly victimized by intolerant forces in city hall. No doubt the unvarnished portrait of him has something to do with his daughter being listed as the film’s producer.
Corben uses stock footage and cheesy TV graphics, chronicling Gatien’s rise and fall as if it mattered. It doesn’t. Ultimately his story is that of a businessman targeted by overzealous authorities for political reasons –an injustice, no doubt, but not really worth all the fuss.
“Limelight” functions best as a nostalgic look back at a Manhattan where art and hedonism thrived. Sure there were drugs, and the movie even touches on a murder case that rocked Gatien and his circle, but it was also a vital time for music and the arts.
Giuliani made New York a cleaner, safer city but as “Limelight” shows, an awful lot was sacrificed.
** (out of four)