Soaking Up the Limelight

Written by Jon Reiss on . Posted in Film.


Peter Gatien appears on a large flat screen TV via Skype. Having been deported from the U.S. in 2003, it’s rare to see the Canadian native make a live appearance on the American scene. Wearing a stylish maroon dress shirt and a pair of dark Wayfarers that hide his trademark eye patch, Gatien answers questions about Limelight, the documentary that opened last Friday at Landmark Sunshine. Though Gatien ran The Limelight, which many have called the ’90s version of Andy Warhol’s Factory, he’s often portrayed as a nefarious, mafia-like figure rather than a cultural icon. Limelight, however, produced by Gatien’s own daughter, Jen, might just change that.

Limelight tells two interconnected and opposing stories. The first half of the film focuses on Gatien’s nightlife empire (The Limelight, Palladium, Club USA and The Tunnel) and the cultural boom that seethed within those walls, complete with interviews of Michael Alig, Moby and a slew of other original club kids waxing nostalgia. The second half of Limelight becomes a true crime/courtroom drama documentary full of drug-dealing DJs turned informants, prostitute-hiring DAs and elaborate political takedown plots.

Director Billy Corben, whose previous Cocaine Cowboys films brilliantly tied a major city to its drug of choice, diligently represents Ecstasy’s role in the Manhattan nightlife story. In one scene, a DJ/drug dealer called Lord Michael describes serving E-spiked punch to Limelight patrons. With the introduction of Ecstasy and Special K, the mood shifts and the hedonist escapism of the early ’90s turned into the paranoid debauchery that characterized the end of the decade.

“Ecstasy wasn’t illegal in New York until 1998,” says Gatien. “Not one of Giuliani’s people arrested anyone in New York City until 1998. Before that, Ecstasy was less illegal than lighting a cigarette in the non-smoking section of a restaurant.”

After the overdose of a young man from a connected family, the “rave” drug made its way onto the radar of New York politicians and the law zeroed in on both Gatien and The Limelight.

“My father’s first indictment said he had an Ecstasy factory in the basement of The Tunnel,” says Jen Gatien. “And then it shifted to, ‘He didn’t profit off the drugs, but he knew they were there.’ At first, I thought it was just a mistake that would be cleared up, but it turned into a relentless pursuit.”

“I think I paid a very dear price for whatever occurred at those clubs.” Gatien says. “Prosecutors make their career by taking down big scalps, and mine was a very high profile case.”

In 1999, Gatien pled guilty to tax evasion and served 60 days in jail. Four years later, he was deported back to Canada, leaving his American-born wife and children behind.

From his new home city of Toronto, Gatien describes how things have changed in the New York City nightlife world.

“We used to put a lot effort into drawing a diverse crowd. You had a much better chance of getting into the club if you looked interesting or if you were an aspiring artist or writer.  Today, someone is valued based on how many bottles they can buy, which I think is very depressing. It’s this whole instant gratification generation.”

When asked what he thought of his daughter’s film, Gatien says, “Listen, it’s hard to tell a story in 90 minutes. There are some areas that I wish could be different. I would have loved them to interview Funk Master Flex and all the other people who were an important part of it all. But then again, the film probably wouldn’t have been that good if it was all people talking about how wonderful it all was.”

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