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Knight at the Movies: Limelight; Footloose
2011-10-12

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A little more than 26 years ago I began working as an event promoter at what was then arguably the hottest nightclub Chicago had ever seen: Limelight.

From the day I set foot inside 632 N. Dearborn St., my professional life changed forever. To say the team of fellow creatives who worked and thrived alongside me for the next three and a half years, unless the nightspot closed New Year's Eve 1988, would be an understatement. I am reminded of that life-changing experience on a daily basis and, last year, at a 25th-anniversary reunion party, I greeted old colleagues and friends with the pleasure that comes with all such reunions.

Looming over the reunion but physically absent was Peter Gatien, Limelight's sole owner, who had also psychically presided over the club from his base in Manhattan, the original Limelight, during the club's heyday in the mid-'80s but had rarely visited. It's doubtful that even if Gatien had wanted to attend the Chicago reunion he would have; after being charged and found guilty of income-tax fraud, he was deported back to his native Canada in 2003, and visits back to the States aren't easily managed.

Now his daughter, Jen Gatien, a film producer of rather interesting offbeat indie fare (including the forthcoming LGBT-themed Jack and Diane) has produced a documentary directed by Billy Corben called Limelight that details the events in the early to mid-'90s that led to Gatien's demise as the onetime nightclub king of Manhattan, where he had presided over not just Limelight but The Tunnel, Palladium and his own mega club, USA.

Everything that happened to Gatien and his empire—when he was pitted against the neo-conservative, cross-dressing onetime New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his administration—occurred after my professional association with Gatien ended. That's not to imply any attempt on my part to distance myself from the man I once worked indirectly for and have occasionally been in touch with since. Rather, it's to point out that the club scene that rose to popularity after my tenure was very, very different, and the period examined in the film—the early to mid-'90s—is miles from my era.

My decade was the decade of big hair, big shoulders, outrageous fashion shows and art installations, cocaine, MTV and the invention of the CD and answering machines. Cell phones and the Internet were years away. As the '80s turned into the '90s the age of the club kids, all-night raves, designer drugs, hip-hop and rap became the driving forces behind the success of the megaclubs. The party went on non-stop because the drugs, like Ecstasy and Special K, worked for hours—and the music and the revelers followed suit.

The film details these changes to nightlife culture (that for my money took it down several notches) after Gatien, in his signature monotone but now sporting designer shades in place of the one time de rigueur eye patch (worn as the result of a teenage hockey accident in his native Canada), narrates his own history to an off-camera interviewer (illustrated by snippets of archival footage that filled me with nostalgia).

The bulk of the ensuing saga, according to the movie, looks at the Giuliani administration aiming to close down the megaclubs. Two of Gatien's top party promoters relay this information. One is Michael Alig, the king of the club kids who was eventually convicted of murdering another club kid—relay this. The other promoter, Lord Michael, is another convicted felon who proudly trumpets his claim of having been the first person to bring Ecstasy to Manhattan.

In contrast to these smarmy individuals, a trio of prosecutors describes attempts to directly link Gatien to the drug dealing that was going on in his clubs. Journalist Frank Owen, a longtime watcher of the party scene who chronicled Gatien's story in a book, is another talking head adding details to the story that gets seamier and more repetitive as the film progresses. Corben relies too heavily on the sleazy, ego-driven promoters who clearly relish their time on camera and could have used some fresh interview subjects to offset the taint they leave behind. Also, the film—a none-too subtle attempt to exonerate Gatien's reputation (which, based on the story here, has some merit)—leaves avenues unexplored and questions unanswered.

Although it's not quite the David-vs.-Goliath story that perhaps Gatien and his producer/daughter Jen might have hoped for, Limelight certainly offers an insider's view of a specific, particularly infamous period in nightlife history. Obviously I'm far, far, far from being objective, but I want the next Limelight movie to be a prequel and focus on the mid-'80s. Cue up "You Spin Me Round," "Blue Monday" and "Our Darkness," and meet me on the dance floor while we wait.

Limelight plays exclusively at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Friday, Oct. 14 and Friday, Oct. 21. www.musicboxtheatre.com

Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to remake the nonsense that was the original 1984 quasi-musical Footloose? Oh yeah, probably because it made a zillion dollars, had a hot soundtrack that burned up the charts for months and developed a rabid cult following.

It is my duty to report that the story—one stretched to credibility in which an entire town of teens not allowed to dance finds an out-of-town rebel to lead a revolt—has been kept nearly intact, albeit with a Southern twang (with the action now in Tennessee). A newcomer hunk, Kenny Wormald, replaces Kevin Bacon while Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell have been given character roles, but the movie (which, surprisingly, has a few hot dance sequences) is still one of those awful/glorious guilty pleasures that you either go all the way with or simply roll your eyes at when confronted by its terrible, cynical crassness. (Like the original, this is an example of marketing as moviemaking.)

Given that, it's surprising that the movie's biggest misstep is casting Dancing with the Stars Julianne Hough (on leave from the show) as the bad girl preacher's daughter and then not using her. Hough, who as any DWTS watcher can attest, is nothing if not a whirling dervish on the dance floor and a vocalist with a decent set of country-flavored chops. Hough easily handles the stereotypical dialogue and situations but is never given a song and barely three seconds of solo time on the dance floor. You keep waiting for the director to realize he's neglecting his hotly talented leading lady. But, no: Not only are we stuck with the wooden Kevin Bacon wannabe who dances and dances and dances and sweats up a storm in his muscle tee, but he never once conveys the glory in uninhibited dancing. Worse, he never takes off his shirt. That's not footloose—that's foolish.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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