Documentary Retroview: LIMELIGHT (2011)

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The Rise and Demise of Peter Gatien

Filmmaker Billy Corben’s glitzy documentary, Limelight, follows the rise and demise of New York club lord, Peter Gatien, who ruled the city’s nightlife during the 1980s, until his trend-setting establishments, including the eponymous Limelight, were shut down by officials who accused Gatien and his crew of employees of using the popular premises to distribute illegal drugs.

During his reign, Gatien was a master manilulator of New York culture. Every night of the week, tens of thousands of his followers flocked to Gatien’s clubs for their recreation of choice.

Was Gaiten A Club King or a Criminal Drug Lord?

During the 1980s, New York nightlife centered around four trendy clubs — Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium and Club USA — owned by Peter Gatien, a clever Canadian entrepreneur with a distinguishing eye patch, whose smartly staged nightly ‘raves’ — nonstop dancing to blasting audio and mesmerizing light shows — attracted tens of thousands of followers, and made him very rich.

Limelight, Gatien’s most popular club was an Episcopal church transformed into a temple of hedonism, frequented by a mix of celebrities — Madonna, Liz Taylor, Moby and other pop idols — and fashionistas, gays, transvestites, youths from the ghettos and suburbs. There they escaped the humdrum, explored their senses and exploded with uninhibited lust.

Peter Gatien with George MichaelGatien’s aura was edgy, wild. Authorities pegged his clubs as dangerous elements in the matrix of crime and violence then plaguing New York.

That the clubs were havens for drug users who scored cocaine, ecstasy and other psychotropics to expand the rave euphoria was common knowledge. Gatien’s policy may have been NO DRUGS, but patrons tell of playing ‘What’s My Line,’ a game in which they sniffed lines of white powders, guessing what drugs they were. The last one standing won.

In the 90s, during Giuliani Time, the city’s anti-crime mayor targeted the club king for investigation. That, and curtailment of wild clubbing due to AIDS-engendered fears, crumbled Gatien’s empire.

The club king spent much of his fortune defending himself and was, eventually, deported to Canada, where he now resides.

Now, that’s an appetizing story, but how well does Limelight serve it up?

The Filmmaker’s Vision

If you’ve seen Billy Corben’s previous films, you might suspect that the Miami-based filmmaker is obsessed with the drug scene. Corben’s two Cocaine Cowboys documentaries and other films are about illegal drugs, drug dealers, distribution and users.

Drugs also play a principal role in Limelight, where they’re repeatedly discussed by Gatien, his employees and detractors, and others whom Corben interviewed for the film. Hardly a sentence fails to mention drugs, barely an inch of footage is without a drug reference. Even archival clips of Limelight-ers dancing, posing or smooching have voice over narration putting drugs into the picture.

Limelight is as much about drug culture as it is about Gatien’s rise and demise. And, the drug theme is reflected in the film’s style: Gatien and others are photographed so they appear slightly distorted. Their images are enhanced with colors suggesting psychedelics at play. They’re situated in psychedelically suggestive settings.

For example, Gatien sits in front of a glowing flamingo pink backdrop and his hands, held in front of his body, are tinted green.

The sound track has mind-bending elements: Voices have subtle audio distortions, and the score’s an insistent barrage of fast-paced non-melodic thumping, the sort used at crowded social gatherings to elevate heart rates and force people to mingling by standing close and yelling into each other’s ears.

The style of this film about drugs is, well, druggy.

That might seem a perfectly appropriate match born of creative inspiration. It might thrill some viewers. But does it really work?

Style Surpasses Substance

Whether cinematic style is a subtle insinuation or a brash proclamation, it should always elucidate a filmmaker’s point of view, serve to illustrate intent and be an integral part of the film’s message.

For Limelight, druggy style and drugs as subject should be a neat fit. But this rather obvious choice is actually quite confusing, quite disorienting for the audience. Does Corben address us as witnesses to his revelation of truths, or does he intend to transport us to one the clubs for a psychedelic encounter with a bygone ambience? I haven’t asked him that question, but I doubt he’d have a convincing answer — because I suspect he hasn’t thought about that.

There’s also some confusion about how Corben feels about Gatien. While Corbin lines up witnesses who vindicate Gatien, suggesting that he was a victim of a Giuliani witch hunt, he costumes Gatien in that artificial psychedelic glam glow, which diminishes the club owner’s credibility by wrapping his identity — the way he presents himself — in a falsehood.

Similarly, the thrust of Gatien’s life story and career progression are articulated in the film’s narration and archival images, but Gatien, the man himself, sits so still he barely changes his position throughout the entire film. That he, the film’s lead character, is static (and unmoving) is underscored by that nonstop and insistently rapid techno beat. On top of that, Gatien and his cohorts score the same points repeatedly, again stalling the story’s thrust. There had to have been better directorial choices and editing options.

In Whose Interest? And who’s Interested?

Some viewers will find this glitzy mix a titillating tease, a seductive expose of thrilling club life. For Gatien’s fans and former denizens of his clubs, the film will undoubtedly illicit a sense of nostalgia for their youthful partying past.

For me, the film’s most interesting dimension is the battle between Gatien and Giuliani, exposing the extreme measures the mayor took to shut the club lord down. But that, too, is obscured by style.

It should be noted that Limelight is produced by Jen Gatien. Yes, she is Peter’s daughter. There’s no attempt made to hide their relationship, but she’s not a character in the film. So you’re left to speculate about how family ties might have influenced the shooting and shaping of Limelight, and lack of clarity about the filmmaker’s point of view doesn’t help much with that.

All in all, I’d say that Limelight is less than the sum of it’s parts. In other words, it just doesn’t add up.

Film Details:

Title: Limelight
Director: Billy Corben
Release Date: September 23, 2011
Running Time: 104 mins.
Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
Location: New York City
Language: English
Distribution Company: Magnolia Pictures

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