I absolutely can’t believe how heartbreaking it must’ve been for writer/director Mark Christopher to see his disco party opus 54 get completely dismantled and released as a hodgepodge of his original vision back in 1998. Now, almost 20 years later, people are able to see the film as the filmmaker intended, as the Director’s Cut of this undeniably entertaining film has finally hit digital platforms, with a rumored Blu-ray release possibly in the cards in the near future. When this film first hit screens in late August of ’98, it was promptly attacked by critics who seemed all too eager to rip it to shreds. And after the bad buzz settled in, the film never stood a chance at the box office; it would gross less than $20 million before heading off to a second, slightly more robust life on VHS/DVD/cable. I can remember seeing (and enjoying) the film on opening weekend, and with no understanding of the trouble-filled production, there was no baggage for me to bring into the viewing experience.
But now, having seen the newly restored version in all of its glitz and glamorous glory, it’s absolutely ridiculous to compare the two films, as they are so totally different that it’ll make your head spin. And it sadly reinforces the notion that young filmmakers can become easy targets by the money people. This was a project that Miramax paid to develop based off of Christopher’s treatment and short films, with the studio then approving the material, and letting him shoot the film he wanted to shoot. But after disastrous test screenings that were held in all the wrong places suggested that audiences would hate the film en masse, producers the Weinsteins and honchos at Miramax asked for wholesale narrative edits, alterations in tone and character motivation, and the scrubbing of anything remotely salacious or homoerotic. And this, coming exactly a year after Boogie Nights busted down the normally puritanical doors of American cinema – it’s all so crazy that it almost can’t be believed.
The plot is your traditional rags to riches/fish out of water narrative, concerning a young, sexy guy named Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe at his most breezy and engaging) living in New Jersey with his dad and two sisters, who lucks his way into a coveted bartending job at the titular night club. In a very memorable bit, he’s admitted into the club by 54’s owner Steve Rubell, the fantastic Mike Myers, but only after taking his shirt off to expose his chiseled physique. Before you can say sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Shane gets in way over his head with his fellow employees (Breckin Meyer and Salma Hayek as a debauched couple), his boss (Myers absolutely steals every single scene), and himself.
The film takes on the scope of a personal journey quest, centering on a guy who is still trying to figure himself out as a person, let alone attempting to navigate the extreme partying and emotional thrills of the era. An absolutely amazing supporting cast was along for the ride, including Sela Ward at her absolute hottest, Michael York, Neve Campbell, Heather Matarazzaro, Lauren Hutton, Sherry Stringfield, and Mark Ruffalo in a blink or you’ll miss him bit part, with various real life celebrities making walk-ons and cameos. Again, the differences between the two cuts of 54 are huge, with the director’s cut taking on a totally different edge and tone, while the theatrical release plays it much more straight, in all sense of the phrase. Phillippe’s character in particular is much more interesting in the director’s cut, with morally ambiguous decisions being made, with more of a sexual edge on display.
Skillfully edited by David Kittredge from the original version and 44 minutes of previously unreleased footage, this new cut of 54 moves more gracefully, with scenes feeling more organic, and relationships more fleshed out and multilayered. The big kiss between Phillippe and Meyer has been reinstated, along with a refocusing of Meyer’s character in general, with the romantic triangle of Hayek and the two guys producing even more dramatic heat. The film certainly takes a cue from Boogie Nights in that the narrative revolves around a slightly dim, wide-eyed pretty boy who enters into a world that he could never anticipate or predict, and while the film never hits the peaks that Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture did, it certainly displays its own sense of confidence and flamboyant style. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski shot the film with lots of close ups and neon, going full-tilt inside of the night club, with his swerving, observant camera picking up the various bits of sex and fun all happening inside the pleasure palace. The soundtrack, of course, pops with period authentic tunes that set the mood immediately, with the entire film feeling like a dreamy descent into bacchanalian excess that finally feels fully unleashed.
It’s amazing to think that this film ruffled so many feathers with its gay content 20 years ago, because when looking at it in retrospect, it feels quaint to a certain degree when compared with what’s recently been shown on screen. People weren’t ready to accept the themes that 54 explores, and didn’t want to see their latest heartthrob (Phillippe had just had the smash hit I Know What You Did Last Summer) making out with guys. If Christopher made this film today, it gets released 100% as is, and to a certain extent, he probably would have been able to take things further. But what’s exciting is that this filmmaker has been able to see his project fully realized, and as a result of the dedication of his technical and restoration team, has been able to silence those initial naysayers with a movie that proudly announces itself as a secret gem waiting to be rediscovered by an entirely new generation of movie lovers.