Tuesday, September 20, 2011

King of Clubs: Limelight

Believe it or not, the one-time undisputed king of the New York nightclub scene originally hailed from Canada. Former club kids of a certain age will know that could only be one man: Peter Gatien, the controversial figure behind legendary night-spots including the Limelight, Paladium, and Club U.S.A. His spectacular rise and epic legal battles are chronicled in Billy Corben’s latest documentary, Limelight (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Though a teenage hockey incident resulted in Gatien’s trademark eye-patch, he quickly embraced the roguish image it lent him. An entrepreneur at an early age, he used the compensation from the accident to start his first venture. Hearing of a bankrupt club in Miami, Gatien scooped it up and turned it around in record time. He quickly became the nightclub king of Florida, but in his business, he knew New York was not just the big leagues, it was the only game that counted.

Of course, Gatien made it here and stayed on top for quite a while. Indeed, some of the best sequences of the film explain how he manufactured his clubs’ popularity, identifying and co-opting the right club kids to bring in their friends, knowing the suburban wannabes would follow. Some peer leaders turned out to be a bit unsavory and just about all of them did drugs. For years, Gatien was hounded by charges of facilitating drug commerce, but not directly trafficking himself. Unfortunately, the film unambiguously suggests Gatien fell for the wrong woman who opened him up for specific financial prosecutions, as well.

Though he beat the drug related charges fair-and-square, the film rather protests too much when it frequently complains Gatien was persecuted by the zero-tolerance Giuliani administration. Do not even try to tell us Gatien did not understand illegal substances were indirectly fueling his businesses. After all, Limelight is directed by Billy Corben, the man who made Square Grouper and the Cocaine Cowboys movies. Drug docs are what he does (and that’s cool). Just level with us: the music was kicking, the drugs were flowing, and it was awesome.

In that spirit, Limelight is quite an entertaining hybrid of true crime and Behind the Music-style documentaries. Corben easily exceeds the scandal quota, which is a good thing, whereas the reflective but still steely looking Gatien is definitely an interview subject who came to play. In fact, he seems to cry out for a bio-pic starring James Woods. The blue-tinged neon lighting is also a nice touch, setting the right smoky, after hours mood.

Corben knows this beat and he keeps pace brisk. However, as a rather successful filmmaker, certainly by documentary standards, one would hope he could afford better looking graphics by now. While ultimately they are neither here nor there, their cheesy look is a bit of a distraction from the business at hand. Regardless, Limelight is an enjoyable tell-all reminiscence of slightly old school New York, recommended to the nostalgic and the gawkers when it opens this Friday (9/23) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.