Movie Review: “Limelight”

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 8:30 am.

(Photo: Mag Pictures)

Once upon a time — actually, about 15 years ago — tourists would travel to New York not just for Broadway or shopping in SoHo, but for the Big Apple’s famous clubs. Black, white, Latino, gay, straight — there was a club for everyone in the concrete jungle. Today, New York City has been 100% gentrified. There are no clubs — unless you consider a bar coined as a “lounge” with a DJ stuffed in a corner who presses play on his iPod.

From the ‘70s to the ’90s, New York City clubs were massive spectacles: several floors, a maze of rooms, celebrity attendees and the most popular DJs in the world would spin the music.  The king of the clubs was Peter Gatien, who owned three of New York’s most profitable hot spots: Limelight, Tunnel and Palladium. The Limelight was a former church built in 1844. The Tunnel was once a warehouse for subway cars (Tunnel was famously known for its hip hop nights. The doc includes rare footage of 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne).  The Palladium was once a concert hall that had a 5,500 capacity. Gatien helped make all of these clubs a multi-million dollar success.

Directed by Billy Corben, Limelight chronicles the journey of Peter Gatien but, more interesting, the annihilation of nightlife in New York City under former Mayor Giuliani. Clubs were stereotyped as environments for drugs and promiscuity and a few isolated incidents resulted in a battle between Gatien and the city of New York. Allegedly, Gatien was framed with drug busts — from informants who were also criminals — and eventually nailed for tax evasion. Corben’s look at the viciousness of when Gotham City wants you to vanish was well told, more balanced than imbalanced and heavy on nostalgia — especially if you remember the vibrancy of New York’s club scene.

Corben tells an engaging story which includes corruption, murder, drugs, violence and the right to party. That said, if you are not a New Yorker or remember the good old days of New York City’s nightlife, the film may not resonate. However, Limelight is still an important documentary on a historic time in New York City.

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