“I love America, man … the opportunities are second to none,” Cornwall, Ont.’s Peter Gatien proclaims at the beginning of the documentary Limelight: The Rise of New York’s Greatest Nightclub Empire.
Ah yes, the land of opportunity. Gatien, once King of New York nightlife, learned that for sure. But he also discovered that The Land of the Free has a puritan streak. And that its federal agencies, once crossed, are as unforgiving as the Old Testament.
A Montreal Canadiens fan, Gatien lost his eye in a hockey injury and opened a jeans store with the $13,000 settlement. He sold it to start a Cornwall nightclub, hiring Rush to open up. At this point his compass (and cheque book) pointed south: He bought an Atlanta nightclub and flipped it into one, then two, three and four New York nightclubs in the roaring eighties.
Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol held parties at his joints. Gatien wore a pirate’s eye patch and became a celebrity. “I’m always optimistic about human relations, I got more friends than my man Peter Gatien,” the hip-hop band Fun Lovin’ Criminals called out in 1996.
Fun-lovin’ criminals, especially those associated with drugs, were marked men in mayor Rudy Giuliani’s New York. Gatien’s joints, The Limelight, The Tunnel, Club USA and the Palladium were throbbing, drug-fuelled clubs where, according to a patron interviewed in Limelight, only one law existed: “Never go home with a girl whose hair can hurt you.”
The feds went after him with a vengeance, without making an effort to establish whether Gatien made a nickel on all the ecstasy sold on his premises. When that case collapsed, they got him for tax evasion. He paid that off, so the city took away his liquor license and deported him. The former millionaire was sent back to Canada with $500.
All outrageous stuff. Gatien’s story is worth telling. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that director Billy Corben presents it in such a methodical fashion: News clips and interviews with everyone sitting still, with the only effort made at dressing up proceedings is a green spotlight on Gatien as he tells his tale of Ecstasy and Agony.
And the music is mostly lame. We want more Fun-Lovin’ Criminals!
The movie does contain one telling story that illustrates America’s cultural divide. Former New York mayor Ed Koch once upbraided Giuliani, telling him he was like the cruelly obsessive detective in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
“Rudy, you are pursuing people like Inspector Javert with an intensity that is not acceptable,” he said.
“Who’s Javert?” Giuliani replied.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Limelight: The Rise and Fall of New York’s Greatest Nightclub Empire
- Directed by Billy Corben
- Featuring Peter Gatien, Ed Koch, Moby and Benjamin Brafman
- Classification: 14A
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