Now a remodeled mini-mall on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 20th Street, The Limelight used to be one of New York City's hottest nightclubs. Before that, it was a church, and it still looks like one from the outside. The mastermind behind converting the historic, Gothic structure into an all-night bacchanal was Peter Gatien, a man who for a long time was barely seen, except when he was noticed by his signature pirate-esque eye patch (he lost his right eye in an accident at a young age). Now the subject of a documentary called, appropriately, Limelight, Gatien has a vividly fascinating story to tell — about his rise to power, about the evolving nightclub scene in the late '70s, '80s and early '90s, about drugs, corruption, murder, fame and infamy.
Early in the film, which unfolds in the traditional manner of taped interviews played alongside B-roll pans of New York streets and footage apparently borrowed from 60 Minutes, Gatien talks about choosing the name for The Limelight as a slight "play on words" — one that conveyed the average Joe's evolution from ticket payer to star of The Average Joe Show. Gatien points out that while in the '60s and early '70s patrons would attend rock concerts or a high-octane dance club such as Studio 54 in hopes of brushing shoulders with a star, at The Limelight you were the star. Everyone was.
It's a small irony, however, that there is not much limelight reflecting from this documentary; the production quality is less on par with the average feature-length film, closer to that of an A&E one-hour special — essentially a kind of mulitmedia Wikipedia article. Still, whatever blemishes aren't covered up by expensive tricks shrink in significance as the bizarre story — Limelight's biggest strength — unfolds, full of such colorful characters at Gatien himself (presented as a humble, hard-working businessman who was wrongly scapegoated by federal prosecutors), former "club kid" Michael Alig (interviewed from prison), and a supporting of cast ranging from the dirt of New York's underworld to Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
All by himself, Gatien as documentary subject is sufficiently interesting for an entire film — he has a mystique about him that is alluring as far as it suggests normally incompatible characteristics existing, in unnerving calm, in the same one-eyed man. From a young age (he was in his early twenties when he opened his first major nightclub) he spoke confidently and practically, and despite his sinister eye patch always seemed like a rather normal person. "The King of New York Clubs" was a quiet, reserved man determined to stay afloat in a famously tough business.
In addition to a more colored-in portrait of Gatien, there are other jewels embedded in Limelight — particularly the interviews with Alig, one of the original "club kids" of the '90s, a troupe of outrageously dressed partiers in New York City who at the peak of their fame made the rounds on the talk show circuit, appearing on Geraldo several times. These oversized personalities, which included such familiar names as Leigh Bowery, RuPaul, Amanda Lepore and James St. James, did outlandish things essentially for attention, and had the rest of the world captivated. Of course, there was a dark side to the fun. Alig murdered his roommate Angel over a drug dispute, kept the body on ice in his bathtub till he dismembered it and threw it into the Hudson River. He was eventually convicted of manslaughter after a bizarre series of twists and turns that seem made for the movies — and was, as it turns out, in 2003's Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin as Alig.
The club kids' antics are merely background for the main story. The murder of Angel Melendez figures as one small piece of the puzzle in the Gatien trial and the take-down of The Limelight, but it's part and parcel of the overall appeal of this film. Throughout Limelight there is a sense of the arcane madness of a particular historical moment now past, but we're not talking about the Middle Ages or even Nazi-era Germany. This was New York hardly two decades ago. What have we learned in the interim?