Limelight, a new documentary by Cocaine Cowboys’ Billy Corben out today, is perhaps the most apologetic, mournful retelling of a party animal’s life since The People Vs. Larry Flynt, or at least, Blow. Given Corben’s kid-gloves treatment of his subject—dance-club owner Peter Gatien’s career from the seventies through the nineties—you may, by the end of this coke-fueled, debauchery-drenched saga, confuse Gatien with Saint Teresa of Avila herself. But whether you love Gatien or hate him, his rise-and-fall story, which also chronicles the rise and fall of pre-AIDS city nightlife and post-AIDS rave culture, is mesmerizing to watch.
Born and raised in Ontario, Gatien lost one eye as a teenager through a hockey-related injury; soft-spoken and intense, he now comes off like an eyepatch-wearing Peter Weller. The damage funds he received are what ultimately launched his career as a clothing store, bar and eventually club proprietor, but it’s likely that eyepatch that imbued Gatien with his shadowy mystique, endearing him to nightlife denizens and kingmakers alike.
In 1976, Gatien turned a bankrupt Miami club into the first incarnation of Limelight; not long after, he opened a duplicate club in Atlanta, where he installed such criminally lavish exhibitions as a shark tank and a polar bear pit. By 1983 he had converted an abandoned church on Sixth Avenue and 21st Street—ironically used as a drug rehab center—into what would become, for nearly twenty years, the hippest, sexiest, druggiest lair of iniquity New York City would ever know.
At first, Limelight was a celebrity-studded establishment, a haven for eccentric celebrities like Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono who hosted all-night parties in its gothic enclave. Though the high-class hedonism fell off considerably during the mid- to late- eighties–when AIDS “squashed nightlife”—a more universal form of it surfaced by the end of the decade, when the thriving London rave scene and its MDMA (“E”) devotees began exporting their influence over to this side of the pond.
Soon, club regulars like DJ “Lord” Michael Caruso were bringing ecstasy punch and techno beats to the Limelight. Friday night events such as “What’s My Line,” in which contestants snorted various powders and guessed their substance, drew upwards of 60,000 people to the club. The police, and Gatien himself, turned a blind eye to the goings-on, so long as violence didn’t spill out onto the street. And the club’s arty pretensions were virtually gone; Guidos, Goths and transvestites all mingled in chemical harmony on the dance-floor.
In 1993, Rudy Giuliani began cracking down on everything from squeegee men to public drunkenness and it was only a matter of time before club owners like Gatien were vilified. Reporters ran regular stories on the side effects of E; in 1996, two drug dealers–as well as club kid Michael Alig, who was later convicted for murder—cooperated with the D.E.A., leading to a major crackdown on Limelight. Even after Gatien’s innocence in any drug-dealing was proven—and the authorities’ bribery and corruption became apparent—Gatien was never to be left alone again.
Hip-hop parties, now the prominent craze, replaced in-club raves—presumably so Gatien could pay back-taxes—which was worrisome to the cops. By 1999, Gatien was convicted of tax evasion and the club had to be unloaded; by 2003, he was deported back to Canada, and, after a failed club launch in Toronto, Gatien got out of nightlife entirely. The Limelight, his lifeblood, is today a mini-mall.
The viewer will probably be just as saddened as Gatien and Corben are by the overall yuppification of the New York City scene. The pall of Giuliani’s street-cleaning, whore-ridding era hangs over the current nightlife spots like a toxic smell, and it’s about time a movie looked as dolefully as this one does upon the antiseptic safeness of present-day New York.
With his MTV-style, neon-light editing tricks, and a spate of long-forgotten news clips and little-seen club footage at his disposal, Corben plunges with electrifying zeal into the depravity, the chaos and, simultaneously, the loving open-mindedness of the Limelight crowd. Even if you hated ravers in high-school, you’ll find yourself feeling nostalgic for that more permissive scene, where, ironically, the full awareness of the dangers of unprotected sex led to even wilder safe-sex hedonism.
But Corben, as well as the various subjects interviewed—defense attorney Benjamin Brafman, former Limelight associates, even district attorneys that admit their wrongdoing—are altogether too admiring of Gatien. The ways in which the authorities ganged up on Gatien and forced his downfall are indeed unscrupulous, but Gatien himself wasn’t exactly brimming with scruples. While he may not have directly caused any harm to club-goers, the fact remains that Gatien was very lax about—frankly—illegal practices going on in his club; with all his power, there must have been a way to keep the Limelight exciting even with beefed-up security.
Corben never explores the darker side of Gatien’s nature (“Peter could go on drug binges for days and then be totally clean for months,” one subject says, as if to exonerate him fully; “every club had drugs, but not an eyepatch-wearing owner,” says another, painting him as an easy target.)
Corben also errs by focusing far too much on Gatien’s long-term wife, Alessandra, whom pretty much all of the interviewees believe was a greedy Yoko Ono figure, influencing most of Gatien’s bad career moves. But since Alessandra is never on camera, this seems like a backhanded cop-out. No one is ever questioned why, for instance, Gatien would date such a woman in the first place, or why he is still married to her, and what that implies about his character.
However, the rest of Limelight is so meticulously researched, so passionately described, that its flaws, however grating, fail to detract from its thrills. And unlike most once-triumphant, now-notorious giants, Gatien has clearly retained not only his sanity, but his humility as well. And that makes him hard to dislike.