This review was originally published on The Film Experience.
The history behind Mark Christopher’s wannabe decadent, sexually-charged disco epic 54 is almost as interesting as the real life nightclub it uses as its setting. Originally conceived as a disco-themed coming-of-age drama like Saturday Night Fever blended with the hedonistic dungeon-like underworld of Cruising, all signs pointed to the film being a crazed and sexy paean to a world that no longer exists. And then Miramax got involved. There’s a long history of director’s cuts of famous films or those from famous directors (Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now) or cult titles (Dark City). 54 was neither, so how did it get into this position?
After a few fated audience test screenings, Miramax decided to change tact with 54. Cutting out 40 minutes of footage that showed an openly queer antihero and replacing it with 25 minutes of newly filmed material aimed to exploit the exploding popularity of stars Ryan Phillippe and Neve Campbell. Released to scathing reviews, the film ultimately limped at the box office, Mike Myers had a supporting actor nomination rescinded by the New York Film Critics Circle (at least according to the director) and was likely never thought much of since. Mark Christopher’s career was essentially ruined in the process.
Yet, as if conjured by Conchita Wurst herself (she’d fit in perfectly), 54 has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes and returned in 54: The Director’s Cut. Christopher has cut out all of the studio-mandated reshoots and replaced them with over 35-minutes of the originally excised movie sequences. While some of which look like fifth-generation VHS quality rips, the kind you’d pass around your friends of an R-rated movie in school, Christopher has produced what is the closest to his original vision as you’re ever going to get. Even that rough quality adds a certain documentary quality to the nightclub footage as if it was some long-lost footage filmed by a patron of the real club.
It proves to be a gorgeously recreated world where fluid sexuality and disco take centre stage. Where bodies gyrate against bodies to the harmonies of Amii Stewart, Thelma Houston, and Blondie. Where the naked torso of a man against another against a woman’s against another woman is as natural as moving one’s hips and feet to a thumping rhythm on the dancefloor. It’s out and proud, not at all shying away from the sexual aggression of Phillippe’s character as he calmly removes his clothes for any gender. The period details of sequins and grime that so epitomised 1970s New York City are wonderfully realised, too, giving the film an authenticity that is missing from the likes of American Hustle. It’s like a rich, aged desert that took 20 years to reach its potential. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves and say it reaches the complex world of Boogie Nights (an obvious inspiration), but this new version should find a place at the table of films about this wonderful era. And, honestly, who can forget the Stars on 54 cover of “If You Could Read My Mind”? There are no ghosts in wishing wells here, but there are silver hotpants and for that I’m thankful.