A Club King Returns Himself To The 'Limelight'
Devotees of early-'90s Manhattan nightlife will likely groove to Limelight, a garishly trippy documentary about the rise and fall of club baron Peter Gatien. They'll also probably be the only people who fully understand it.
It's not that Billy Corben's movie is incoherent, exactly, but it does assume a certain familiarity with New York's golden age of Ecstasy, house music and cross-dressing Drug Enforcement Administration agents. To follow the tale, it would help to have been a club regular or a Village Voice reader during the period — or to have perused former Voice reporter Frank Owen's book, Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture.
Murderous? Yes, indeed. One of the movie's major accomplishments is on-screen interviews with both Michael Alig and "Sir Michael" Caruso, who promoted some of the most successful dance parties at such Gatien-owned venues as Limelight, the Palladium and Club USA. The two men were accused of separate homicides, although only Alig was indicted. (He was convicted of manslaughter.)
Luring Gatien in front of a camera is less of a coup. His daughter, Jen Gatien, produced the movie, which is clearly designed to rehabilitate his image. The prey of an overreaching DEA investigation, Gatien lost his New York empire while successfully battling charges that he masterminded the rampant drug peddling that occurred in his clubs. He eventually pleaded guilty to a modest bit of tax evasion, and was deported to his native Canada.
Gatien, unsurprisingly, is the movie's principal witness, filmed in a fuchsia- and chartreuse-lit bar that cheesily evokes his dance-club days. The former impresario, who lost an eye while playing hockey as a teen, has switched to dark glasses from the eyepatch that once gave him a somewhat ominous aspect. He now looks a bit like Daniel Craig, and he might as well be playing one of that actor's tough-guy roles: Gatien doesn't show much personality or reveal any emotions other than cool resentment.
Among the movie's other major talkers — all framed by neon hues — are Owen, former Limelight DJ Moby, and onetime Gatien attorney Benjamin Brafman. None is trenchantly analytical, although Brafman's wonder at the weakness of the government's case against his client is still vivid 15 years later.
Gatien reportedly was never much of a schmoozer, which is one reason he had few friends to help him when the DEA targeted him. But he could spot a lucrative trend, whether it was the gangsta rap that drew thousands to the Tunnel or the British "acid house" (and then-legal Ecstasy) that revived Limelight around 1990, after AIDS had stolen the energy (and much more) from New York's dance-club scene. What he failed to anticipate was new Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "zero tolerance" campaign against crime, drugs and (it seemed to some) fun.
This documentary would make a nice double bill with Mr. Nice, the mostly comic biopic about an Oxford-educated drug dealer who was also zealously pursued by the DEA. Neither movie reveals much about that agency, in part because it's as reticent as — well, as a drug cartel. Someday, the archives should open, allowing a complete account of Gatien and his antagonists. In the meantime, Limelight offers a few moderately enlightening interviews and a lot of candy-colored lights.
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