Outfest LA 2023 Film Review: Studio One Forever ★★★★

Studio One in West Hollywood, one of the first gay discos, operated from 1974-1993 and proved to be an oasis for so many at a time when the world treated the community like second class citizens. With a capacity of over 1000, this cavernous club and adjoining cabaret called The Backlot attracted hordes of mostly white gay men and the Hollywood elite throughout such historical touchstones as the sexual revolution and the height of the AIDS crisis. Marc Saltarelli’s emotionally overpowering documentary, Studio One Forever, chronicles its history, warts and all, from those who lived to tell and from those who strive to preserve it for future generations. With the rise of right wing extremism, this film couldn’t come along at a better time. As such, it forces you to confront the importance of queer spaces, the ugly truths about racism and sexism in gay culture, the toll AIDS has taken on our community, and why our erasure is not an option. I thought going in I’d experience a cute memory piece about a long forgotten nightspot. Who knew that I’d emerge a hot mess soaked in tears and newly energized to fight for our right to exist and thrive.

Bruce Vilanch in Studio One Forever. Courtesy of School Pictures.

Saltarelli has conducted dozens of interviews for his film, from Studio One staff, most touchingly Michael Koth, a former bartender, who describes the devastating loss over the years and his own personal struggles. There’s a hilarious interview with a dancer named Jimmy, who became a local celebrity, and who makes the distinction between dancing on a box and dancing on a stage. He also gets vivid and humorous stories from the likes of such showbiz icons as Bruce Vilanch, Chita Rivera, Roslyn Kind, and Melissa Rivers, who details her late mother Joan’s bravery in hosting the first AIDS fundraiser amidst death threats.

Michael Koth (left) in Studio One Forever. Courtesy of Michael Koth.

Scott Forbes, the original owner of the club, may have brought people together, but he also excluded women and people of color with his shameful door policies. Not a white male? They’d require three forms of identification or they’d turn you away. In a documentary filled with beautiful memories, I was glad to see it not shy away from its ugly past. A comment later in the film from Lance Bass acknowledges and shows a dedication to diversity. Racism isn’t over, but at least Bass, who owns a bar in West Hollywood, isn’t repeating Forbes’ mistakes.

Studio One Forever. Courtesy of School Pictures.

With that in mind, your mileage may vary when it comes to wanting to save the actual building. Five men—Lloyd Coleman, Gary Mortimer, Gary Steinberg, Ron Hamill, and John Duran—figure prominently in the film as they strive to do just that. You truly feel for them as they recall their connections to the place and how it gave them a sense of belonging somewhere when the world told them they didn’t. Personally, I’m torn. It was kind of an ugly warehouse with a checkered past, but yes, we do need to remember the people we have lost.

Lloyd Coleman, Gary Mortimer, Gary Steinberg, Ron Hamill, John Duran in Studio One Forever. Courtesy of School Pictures.

This is where the beauty of archives comes into play and a woman named Natalie Garcia. She provides a treasure trove of slides from Studio One’s early days, which she stumbles upon in a neighboring garage. One such photo happened to be of a college roommate of mine, which literally took my breath away. The history of Studio One belongs in a museum such as the ONE Archives and this film should run on a loop forever there. What happens to the building? Well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out. I highly recommend you seek it out. It’s funny, touching, and feels like thousands of ghosts from the grave crying out so we never, ever forget them as we think about what more they could have brought to the world had their lives not been cut so cruelly short.

By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic

Studio One Forever screened at the 41st Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Tuesday, July 18th.

The 41st Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs in person until Sunday, July 23rd 2023 and some selections continue virtually until July 30th. For the full lineup and to purchase tickets head to the Outfest LA 2023 website.

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