JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Limelight (Director: Billy Corben) - May 13, 2011
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Limelight

3 3
101 min.

Reviewed at the 2011 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
All Hail the Party King

The rise, fall and deportation of nightclub guru Peter Gatien is a fascinating study of things that go funk, bump (along with much grind) and snort into the wee hours.

The Cornwall (Ontario, Canada) native was for several years New York City’s party king. Industrial strength (and size—50,000 sq. ft. is a lot of territory for the dance-‘til-dawn set) emporiums of decadence included, The Palladium, Club USA, The Tunnel and Limelight (the jewel in the crown of several same-named U.S. establishments). The latter was a born-again Episcopalian church (at the trendy 6 Ave/Avenue of the Americas) where symbolic wafers, wine and holy water were replaced with ecstasy, booze and all manner of designer drugs.

The premise of Billy Corben’s film is that Gatien was just an honest businessman trying to set a new standard of excellence in his field: “You need to be the best in your industry,” says the longtime entrepreneur soon after the opening montage of biographical photos (engagingly accompanied by a solo piano where a tinge of “O Canada” finds its way into the original score).

With incredible over zealousness first as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York then mayor of NYC, Rudi Giuliani’s extra tough on crime wave (2,000 murders a year cast a dark cloud over the entertainment capital of the universe) attempts to snare Gatien (first on racketeering and drug dealing charges which were quashed when the government’s informants—and trusted employees in the clubs—proved to be more unsavoury than the accused: Sean Bradley dismembered his beloved roommate “Angel”), the film quickly morphs from exposé of an expectedly seamy business (the upper- middle-classes do attend these sorts of fantasy palaces to temporarily forget their regular lives, get high and mingle with the beautiful people) to damnation of politicians, prosecutors and DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) officials and agents.

Leading the fray of reverse moral outrage is the resplendently coiffed defense attorney, Benjamin Brafman. It’s instantly apparent why he has made a career protecting the rights of the rich and famous: his smooth banter and convincing tone (opting to call no witnesses of his own at the first trial having deftly painted all of the government’s snitches into a slimy corner of deceit and plea bargains) are second to none. Not surprisingly, with a marvellous echo of Al Capone, Gatien is finally caught with his ledgers down and—negotiating a plea arrangement of his own—convicted of tax evasion (a mere $1.8 million, hardly worth the fuss, is how Brafman spins the verdict—once again underlining his considerable skills). Yet before you can say “What’s my line?”—a parlour game for “sniffers” where first prize is likely an overdose—Gatien’s back in business trying to use the allure of hip hop to fill the coffers and pay back his tax.

Finally, with a decided whiff of Conrad Black’s storied brush with American justice wafting onto the screen, Gatien is summarily deported back to Canada (they were out to get him: proof positive, indeed).

What was missing? The spokespeople for the other side including Alessandra Kobayashi (Gatien’s wife who—we are told by the usual suspects—controlled every dime, but her stoic husband took the rap as any decent family man would), the prosecutors (only Eric Friedberg’s picture made it to the screen—at one point accused of having an affair with career informant Sean Kirkman), the DEA and Giuliani were silent. Still, ex-mayor Ed Koch shows up a few times to scold his political foe.

We’re left to believe that the “creative genius, not much a business man,” according to Brafman, was the victim, not the countless thousands who partied hearty—lured into these opium dens by a master marketer.

Wearing an eye patch (from an early-life sports injury) has a few Richard III moments as only the fulfillment of his ambition to “make it in New York City” will ever compensate for perceived disfigurement.

It’s hard to work up any pity for either manipulator. JWR

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