The Binge and Hangover of a Dance Revolution's Quiet Leader 

limelight5.jpg

Limelight
Directed by Billy Corben

Peter Gatien is one of the unknown revolutionaries, a man who drove powerful cultural changes in New York while remaining—ironically, given the title of the new documentary about his life—more or less in the shadows. Gatien was the eyepatched Steve Jobs of 80s nightlife, owner of such clubs as Limelight, Tunnel and Palladium, venues where rave culture flourished and techno and hip-hop music were eased into the mainstream.

Limelight has a lot of ground to cover, and a narrower focus (or expanded scope: there's enough material for a miniseries) would've yielded greater insight. The film gets into rebellion pre- and post-AIDS, NYC pre- and post-Giuliani, the scene's cultural impact, and the various legal issues that embroiled Gatien and led to his deportation. Much of this is fascinating, but all of it gets short-changed.

Director Billy Corben (of the similarly themed Cocaine Cowboys) keeps things engaging on the strength of his material and a cheerfully funky retro style. The use of talking heads bathed in tinted lights in front of psychedelically melting backdrops would get old a lot faster were it not so appropriate for an era of flashiness over substance.

Still, the most interesting moments tend to be minor anecdotes: an informant trying to buy convincing club clothes for undercover narcs; a young man's tragic murder. Despite his centrality to the era (and his eyepatch), Gatien is more compelling as a business school case study than as a documentary subject. He realized the potential of the club scene, created landmarks and ran them responsibility, not profiting from the ecstasy sales that were rampant in them. When the overzealous Giuliani administration went after him for tax issues (after he was acquitted on more serious charges in a bungled investigation), the size of the charges fit his personality. This has none of the heft of Capone's takedown.

Gatien's dispassionate interviews make it hard to feel as much sympathy as we should for him, and the film never conveys the emotions behind the club movement to the point where we should care that it ended. Still, the film makes one undeniable case for nostalgia by noting that Palladium is now an NYU dorm—the parties thrown there in my day all sucked.

Opens September 23

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