If you ever spent time at New York’s Limelight, Tunnel or Palladium nightclubs during the late ’80s or the ’90s, chances are good you either remember every moment of it — you can’t possibly have forgotten the experience if you were sober — or the whole evening is just a hazy blur of lights, dancing and drugs. South Beach may enjoy a reputation as a playground for adults, but the clubs owned and operated by Peter Gatien in Manhattan were something entirely different: Surreal, intense landscapes typified by unusual décor and settings, A-list DJs and hardcore debauchery carried out right in the open, in plain view of nonplussed, often-intoxicated patrons.
Limelight, the highly entertaining new documentary by Miami filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, takes its title from Gatien’s most famed club, which was situated inside a church built in 1846 and was a landmark of Manhattan’s nightscape until mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought the career of the Canadian impresario to an end. Co-produced by Gatien’s daughter Jen, the movie is as much a rehabilitation of the promoter’s tarnished image (he was deported back to his native Canada in 2003) as it is a recounting of the woozy, Felliniesque New York City nightlife during its last great hurrah.
Corben, who directed Limelight, gives Gatien the main stage, allowing him to tell the wild story of his own rise and fall. He is surrounded by comments from people who obviously adore and support him — everyone from musician Moby to former club promoter Michael Alig, who was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison in 1997 for the gruesome murder of Angel Melendez (the infamous case is recounted in the film).
Interspersed with the interviews is fantastic, fuzzy video footage shot inside Gatien’s clubs at the height of their popularity. The partying is so intense, the atmosphere so wild, that the clips are sometimes frightening — visions of discotheques as one of the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. Shot and edited in Corben’s typically fleet, quick style, Limelight occasionally gets bogged down in the details of the drug busts that eventually forced Gatien to shutter his clubs. The movie fares a lot better as a historical snapshot of the era in which disco and Studio 54 gave way to techno, ecstasy, club kids and raves. Depending on your age, Limelight could make you nostalgic for those bad old days — and sort of glad you’ll never be able to relive them.
Director: Billy Corben.
Producers: Billy Corben, Alfred Spellman, Jen Gatien.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 102 minutes. Drug use, adult themes, nightclub debauchery. Plays Thursday Oct. 13-Sunday Oct. 16 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.