Matt Tyrnauer’s “Studio 54” is a burn, baby, burn disco inferno of fun and nostalgia. But it’s also very much a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of greed on two blue-collar Brooklyn boys who caught a shooting star and clung to it for 33 thrilling months in the 1970s before plunging back to earth in a self-inflicted collapse that left them charred and jailed.

Oh, but what a ride it was; yielding piles of cash flowing from the pockets of A-list celebrities who wanted to see, and be seen at the hottest nightclub the world has ever known, Studio 54. Very much a product of its time, it became ground zero for a revolution in music and fashion. Never mind that both the clothes and the songs were tacky and best forgotten, in the late 1970s you had the choice to either be there or be square.

What endures is the ingeniousness of the concept conceived by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, polar opposites who became friends at Syracuse University, put their brilliant minds together and came up with the radical idea of turning an abandoned CBS television studio into not just a nightclub but “an adult amusement park” that spawned a cultural movement in which everyone was allowed to be whoever they wanted to be, no matter if they were white-black, gay-straight, young-old, male-female, rich-poor. Oops, forget that last one. Schrager and Rubell’s mecca of glitz actually excluded all but the rich and well-connected. They were the lucky few allowed to bypass the masses gathered outside the velvet ropes of the haughty West 54th Street establishment located, ironically, in the heart of Manhattan’s version of the Combat Zone.

As with his equally fascinating docs, “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” and “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” Tyrnauer’s latest is an extrasensory compilation of priceless photos, film clips, recordings and screaming headlines that instantly transport you to another place in time. And what a place Studio 54 was with its mashup of innovative architecture, pulsating sound and kitschy fashions. It was the only place you’d find Mick and Keith rubbing elbows with Cher, Truman Capote, Liza Minnelli and Ratpacker Sammy Davis Jr. Even members of the Carter administration could be spotted, most famously the president’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, long accused of snorting cocaine on the premises.

Tyrnauer includes all of it, abetted by Schrager, looking back 40 years through the prism of age and experience. He still speaks fondly of Rubell, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1989. That was almost a decade after the pair was sent to prison on charges of income tax evasion and drug possession. Here’s where greed raises its ugly head, as Schrager, Rubell and their silent partner, Jack Dushey, couldn’t resist skimming from the huge profits flowing in every night of the week. Stupidly, they kept much of the green stowed in the rafters and other obvious places, making them sitting ducks when the feds raided them in 1978.

The trio’s journey through the justice system fills the final 30 minutes of Tyrnauer’s tight, well-told documentary, and it’s every bit as much a buzzkill for us as it was for them. The result is a jarring shift in tone from the high-flying, anything goes hedonism of the club’s heyday to the gravity of long prison terms and bankruptcy. Yet, it’s no less intriguing, particularly when the notorious Roy Cohen — a favorite of, and lawyer for, the current president as well as Red Scare maven, Sen. Joseph McCarthy — appears on the scene as their conniving, unethical legal counsel.

It’s here where the Schrager of today understandably begins to withdraw, both out of embarrassment and fear of incrimination. Prior to that, he proves a fountain of information about the club, its design and its rightful place in the pop-culture idiom. He’s particularly moving whenever talk turns to Rubell, his dear friend, with whom he also shared a beach house in the Hamptons that Schrager, now a renowned boutique hotelier, still occupies.

His friend was a gay extrovert, while he was a straight introvert, but neither questioned the other’s motivations or sexual preference. They were just old buddies from Brooklyn who attended the same college, shared a need for creativity and put their minds together to create not just a nightclub, but a social and cultural landmark. And one that continues to resonate as loudly today as it did then; a disco inferno whose flame will likely never be extinguished.

— Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“Studio 54”
A documentary by Matt Tyrnauer featuring Ian Schrager, Steve Rubell, Nile Rodgers and Roy Cohen.
(Not rated.)
Grade: B+