Pop culture docs that pop

A pair of new documentaries — one about a famous disco club, one about an infamous/classic comic book flick — caught my eye and my fancy. They’re both worth checking out.

  •  “Studio 54″

In Matt Tyrnaue’s sparkly “Studio 54,” the supreme disco saturnalia of ‘70s New York is enshrined as a Felliniesque funhouse of fame, freaks and fortune, a shaken snow-globe of gilded sin and glittered celebrity: Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Cher, to name-drop a few pampered regulars.

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Though notorious for its ruthless, velvet-rope exclusivity, the cavernous club was a haven for LGBTs where sex, drugs and romp ’n’ roll played out among gyrating bodies and unrepentant theatrics: fog, snow and wind machines; glitter, confetti and balloon drops. For 33 publicity-pumped months, 54 was the hottest ticket in town, perhaps the world.

With input from club patrons and associates, and miles of bracing archival footage, Tyrnaue first makes a case for 54’s throbbing fabulousness — well-trod glitzstory — and how it sprang from disco’s post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, let’s-party zeitgeist.

Attention then pivots to 54’s founders, best friends from Brooklyn, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, regular guys who wanted to “change the universe, invent the world,” recalls Schrager. (Though Rubell died at 45 from complications of AIDS, in 1989, the doc is rife with vintage footage of the impish, devil-may-care co-founder.)

In this parable of excess, hubris and the perils of having a ball, antiheroes Schrager and Rubell play hard and fall hard, taking their precious property with them. “They thought they were so important that they could do anything,” says author Steven Gaines.

An arrest for selling alcohol without a liquor license leads to raids on the club, uncovering drug possession and skimmed cash. With legendary pit bull Roy Cohn as their lawyer, the duo pleads guilty to a gasping $2.5 million in tax evasion. They each get three and a half years in prison. They sell Studio 54 from the pen and, by aiding feds with other tax-evasion cases, reduce their sentences. 

Anatomizing the implosion of an empire, “Studio 54” lends enlightening texture to an oft-sensationalized cultural moment. “When I look back on it now, it was so preposterous,” says Schrager, today a successful hotelier. “What were we thinking?” 

Streaming on Netflix. Trailer here.

  • “Life After Flash”

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It’s hard to recall that before he was a fair-haired galactic god the character Flash Gordon, in 1980’s kitschy cult movie of the same name, was a star quarterback for the New York Jets. And that was the quasi-superhero’s so-called superpower that would save the world — his football-chucking athleticism. Odd, yet so righteously all-American. 

Exalted in Lisa Downs’ adoring doc “Life After Flash,” Flash (played by young, ripped ex-Marine Sam J. Jones) finds himself accidentally rocketed into space to a cornea-curdling cuckoo land of soaring hawkmen, green-faced midgets and the estimable Max von Sydow bedecked in flummoxing Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing red silk cloak.

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This is the planet Mongo and von Sydow, clinging to his dignity, is nefarious, wizardly Emperor Ming the Merciless. You either accept this or stroll over to “The Goonies” booth.

A film-nerd’s dream, the doc embraces, nay, bearhugs, Flash and his jut-jawed mythology, enlisting a galaxy of voices — Stan Lee, director Robert Rodriguez and a passel of genre performers — to lionize the film in a richly informative orgy of nostalgia. (Natch, most of the interviews happen at Comic Con and similar geekoid jamborees.) The movie’s actors and director Mike Hodges delightfully chime in.

Bluff but affable, blocky and bulked-out as if made of Legos, Jones, 64, is the cynosure of the doc, except when he’s not. His life is mildly interesting: Hollywood, surprise, proved a rocky road, and his personal travails are par for the course.

But it’s the backstage drama of making “Flash Gordon” that grips. From legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis’ run-ins with Jones and the pre-CGI effects out of an Atari game gone berserk; to Queen’s gloriously operatic theme song, which co-star Topol calls “the best thing in the movie,” and the running squabble about the film as a straight-faced epic or comic-book send-up.

In this classic pop-culture resurrection narrative — as middle-aged fans crave a nostalgia fix, Jones is cool again — there is good news. Jones lands a self-parodying role in the hit Seth McFarland comedies “Ted” and “Ted 2” and revels in signing autographs and posing for selfies — no Flash in the pan. “Did I ever want to step away from being the image of Flash Gordon?” Jones asks. This rollicking portrait provides the answer: not in a million light years.

On iTunes, Google Play and Hulu; on Blu-ray and DVD on March 26. Trailer here.

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Sam J. Jones — Flash himself — today at a nerd convention with a hirsute hawkman.

Human figures, so creepy, so astonishing

For many, Easter Sunday is a time to reflect on one very important body, the one that rose from the dead to make thunderous proclamations and upend the world forever.

For me, Easter Sunday, a few days ago, was a time to reflect on scores of bodies congregated in a Manhattan museum, a reflection that furnished its own transcendence, its own religious experience, if you will.

These bodies — from the gorgeous to the gruesome; the hyper-realistic to the freakily figurative — comprise the knockout exhibit “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now)” at The Met Breuer, through July 22.

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The old and the new, juxtaposed.

“Like Life” nimbly and epically presents some 120 works spanning 700 years, from classical Greek to contemporary bad boy Jeff Koons, and oodles in between: Donatello, El Greco, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rodin, Degas, Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim, Isa Genzken, Charles Ray, and so many more.

The show’s thrills (and chills) include an awesome array of wax effigies, reliquaries, mannequins and anatomical models — including graphic autopsy depictions — plus tiny-scale sculptures from the Renaissance and beyond. There is lots of nakedness.

My visit was a promenade amid faces and bodies, hands and limbs and heads, some bloody, some immaculate. Many of the life-size bodies, often made of wax, are so realistic I practically did double-takes. Once in a while I flinched and muttered, “Christ.

Juxtapositions with ancient and new figures are clever and provocative, almost none of them without wit and wonder. Throughout, spellbound, I contemplated mortality and deformity, the genius of art and the supremacy of the visionary. Gladly, I was just as often captivated as creeped-out. It’s a sweet and savory affair.

Below is part of the population crowding the best show I’ve seen since the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met last summer:

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Detail from “The Whistlers” (2005), a sculpture by Tip Toland. Jarringly realistic, profound and whimsical. Just look at that face.
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In “The Digger” (1857), is this skinless man shoveling his own grave? In the background, an especially grisly crucifixion from medieval Germany.
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Faces from the ages: Center is the ethereal “Mask of Hanako, Type E” by Auguste Rodin (1911). At right is “Self,” a frozen-blood self-portrait by Marc Quinn (2006).
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“Housewife” (1969-1970) by Duane Hanson. Commentary that is both witty and withering, this snapshot of quotidian, housebound tedium is a diorama of depression.
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“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons. A porcelain monstrosity that’s actually pretty hilarious depending on your mood and/or critical perspective. (I think the consensus is that it’s hideous.)
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“To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll” (2016) by Goshka Macuga, a speaking, moving android that pontificates with chilling verisimilitude about life, death and global concerns for 38 minutes. Eerie and mouth-agape mesmerizing, he’s the spiky, intellectual counterpoint to Disney’s anodyne animatronics.
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“Self-Portrait with Sculpture” by John De Andrea, 1980. These are not real people. The frontal view is firmly R-rated, the tableau slightly disturbing and thought-stirring and so true-to-life, it makes you start. (Can you name the extremely famous painting in the background, left? It’s a beautiful juxtaposition with the sculpture. Answer: “Pygmalion and Galatea.)
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I don’t know who this is, or who made him. But he emanates a special brand of banal magnificence.