EIFF2015 Review – 54: The Director’s Cut (1998)

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Mark Christopher’s disco drama 54 scraped back little more than its production costs upon its much-derided release in 1998. This was no fault of Christopher whose cut had been butchered by Miramax in order to make the film more mainstream friendly. Now the writer-director returns to 54 with a new cut that buffs up characterisation and celebrates the pure blissful hedonism of the seventies’ disco scene.

Young buck Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe) lands a job as bartender at iconic disco club Studio 54 after owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers) catches sight of his physique. As he revels in the joyous excess of the club, 54 captures the intertwining stories of Shane, aspiring starlet Anita (Salma Hayek) and bartender Greg (Breckin Meyer).

Christopher restores much of the cut scenes from VHS dailies kept my Miramax (the higher quality footage was dumped) and doing this restores the love triangle between Shane, Anita, and Greg – there’s also more integral Phillippe nudity. The result is a curious visual concoction that is surprisingly effective – the fuzzier restored footage taps into the aesthetic of hazy nostalgia that pulses throughout 54, giving it a further underground cult aestheticism.

Christopher’s Director’s Cut allows him to return focus to the hedonistic sexuality of the period, captured through Shane’s bisexuality – whether he’s lusting after Anita or Shane, or simply going-off with club revellers. This cut feels more focussed in its almost coming of age story of Shane, a young working class man making it big in a candy store of sex, drugs, and high energy disco music. We get more of an insight into what drives these characters: Anita has dreams of stardom, Greg has hopes of settling down, and Shane attempts to fill a void of loneliness with carnal and chemical excess. As well as this additional character depth, we also gain more of an insight into the euphoric pleasures of Studio 54 in a watch that’s brimming with vibrancy and infectious hedonism.

Kevin Thompson‘s production design captures the sweeping elegance in the architecture of Studio 54, whilst costumes from Ellen Lutter transport us to this decade of camp high fashion. Christopher packs a real energy into his direction in the club sequences, soundtracked with some magnificent disco classics (Diana Ross’s The Boss, Mary Griffin’s take on Knock on Wood, The Gibson Brother’s Que Sera Mi Vida, amongst dozens of others). This scintillating debauchery is masterfully captured, ensuring as an audience that this is a club we would still all want to get into. Lee Percy’s fast-paced editing furthers this pulsating energy particularly in its presentation of the manic euphoria of the dance scenes.

Mike Myers still remains an incredible asset to 54 in his role as drug-popping club boss Steve Rubell. The slurring and sleazing Rubell becomes the dark face of this excess – barely functioning, sex-craving, and drooling – but there’s also an odd charm in Myers’ performance (perhaps it’s that little giggle) so he never feels like a villain. Christopher’s cut also sees improvement in the lead performances: previously just an ode to his physique, Phillippe’s role sees some darker pathos come into play as he’s never quite satisfied by this kingdom of excess and riches. Breckin Meyer benefits from the restoration of many of his scenes (he’s more than just the short best friend now) and Salma Hayek feels more pivotal as starlet Anita thanks to the restored love triangle dynamic.

For fans of the disco scene, 54 provides all the flashy nostalgia you’d hope. From the inventive soundtrack choices (special praise to the still-iconic Stars on 54 cover of If You Could Read My Mind) to the plethora of cameos from disco icons (like Thelma Houston), Studio 54 regulars, and character stars (Michael York, Neve Campbell, Sela Ward etc.). Disco Dottie still reigns supreme in this cut – as the foul mouthed, coke snorting (yet sweet) Grandmother skates around the dancefloors of 54 in an incredible performance from the late Ellen Albertini Dow.

54: The Director’s Cut is the Studio 54 epic that audiences deserved. Whilst capturing the hedonistic euphoria of the disco scene in its celebration of excess, Christopher packs this cut with vibrancy and edge – and restores vital character development. It’s an experience of transcendent bliss.

Andrew McArthur

Drama | USA, 1998 | 15 | 2015 Edinburgh Film Festival | 27th June 2015 | Dir.Mark Christopher | Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Sela Ward, Mike Myers, Neve Campbell, Breckin Meyer,