Once upon a time (1983) in New York City there was a nightclub called ‘Limelight’. Attracting the brightly shining stars like Madonna and Moby, its owner, Peter Gatien, was an entrepreneur from Canada who turned an empty church on Sixth Avenue into the greatest dancing experience of a generation. Now a new documentary film sheds light on the rise and fall of this mystic place.
A Gothic revival, brownstone building constructed in the mid-19th century is the setting for Limelight. In 1983, the location evolved into a disco like no other. The music of choice? A mix of techno, goth and industrial. Gaining a rep as a place of bad trips and the scene of a murder in 1996, Limelight was soon shut down. Capturing the essence of the club and its kids, filmmaker Billy Corben has just released a documentary on founder Peter Gatien. The formula for what Gatien felt made a great nightclub, however dangerous or risky, worked for many years, but this dramatically changed when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown on crime turned its eye on Gatien. i-D online spoke to Corben about his choice of subject matter, drug trends and his grandparents’ clubbing antics.
Tell us about your decision to focus the documentary on Gatien and Limelight in particular? The story actually chose us, at first. Jen Gatien, Peter’s daughter, who is an established independent film producer, had seen Cocaine Cowboys and approached us about making her father’s story. We hadn’t done much outside of the Miami-centric stories Rakontur is known for, but this seemed like a really exciting opportunity. My producing partner, Alfred Spellman and I, discussed it and we really liked the compelling way you could tell Peter’s micro story against the macro backdrop of the ‘Giuliani Revolution’ in the 1990s, how New York was completely transformed during what was, at least in part, a culture war where Peter was either collateral damage or a primary target, depending on how you look at it. The movie is about the rise and fall of Peter’s entire nightclub empire, the largest ever in the history of New York, so you get to experience a bit of Tunnel, Palladium and Club USA. But the primary focus is on Limelight because it was the flagship nightclub of Peter’s and really of all of New York City. I mean, it was around for eighteen years which is pretty unprecedented in the nightclub business in any city in the world. Studio 54 is probably one of the most famous nightclubs ever and it was around for less than three years.
Does the film manage to capture the essence of Limelight? I think so. At this point, that’s really up to the viewer. We’ve got this kind of drug-trends-through-the-decades trilogy at Rakontur: Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja is about 1970s pot hauling culture, Cocaine Cowboys is our 1980s cocaine movie, and Limelight is our 1990s ecstasy doc. Each of these projects has their own unique aesthetic where we let the story dictate the style and we really try, with the lighting, the F/X, the music, the editing, to capture the era using characteristics of the physical effects of the drug that contributed to defining the period.
What main features of the nightclub did you struggle to find footage of? Thanks to folks like Scott Osman, Steve Eichner and Tina Paul, who maintained an archive of images from their time working in and around Limelight, we were very lucky to access almost everything we needed. From Scotto, we got some extraordinary rare video footage from Limelight and Tunnel and with the extensive photography from Steve and Tina, there are moments where, with the magic of special effects, we were actually able to take their still images and bring them to life, making the girls in the cages hanging from the ceiling dance, having the lights flash and rotate, etc. Also, we got a lot of help from local news sources in New York who extensively covered the various controversies involving Peter’s venues, from Giuliani to the federal trial to the State Liquor Authority, the Community Boards, the tax evasion charges and so on.
Why was Limelight so unique? Well, for starters, it was in a Gothic church built in 1844! What kept people coming back, I think, was Peter’s creativity and his willingness to adapt. Whether it was welcoming new promoters, his openness to new genres of music, embracing art, regularly redesigning the interior (the exterior can’t be altered because of the building’s historical designation), etc. He was always keeping it interesting for himself and for his guests. From the 1980s into the early 2000s, people would visit New York and have a checklist of places to go that would include the Empire State Building, Katz’s Deli and Limelight. My grandparents went there!
How was his personal influence felt in the club? Peter is and always was an enigmatic figure. The eyepatch, his aloofness, his unwillingness to be a part of the parties that he was hosting. When he would leave his office and appear on the floor in his clubs, he’d be standing off in a corner, in the shadows. In that regard, the size of his venues were somewhat reflective of his personality, in that you could easily escape and disappear inside. I mean, Tunnel’s capacity was like 5,000 and the venue was practically the length of an entire city block, so you could go there with a group friends and not see them the rest of the night. And you can hide your problems there, too. Become a different person from your weekday existence.
Limelight is available now on DVD.
Text: Paris Bennett