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'Limelight' Documentary Premieres at Tribeca Film Festival

By DNAinfo Staff on April 23, 2011 2:47pm  | Updated on April 24, 2011 11:21am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — The historic Church of the Holy Communion in Chelsea may now be an upscale mini-mall, but a new film transports viewers back to a time when the building housed the notorious Limelight nightclub.

Tribeca Film Festival documentary "Limelight," produced by the daughter of club owner Peter Gatien, held its world premiere Friday night at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, the same day it secured a global distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures.

The film examines the rise and fall of Gatien, who was arrested on tax evasion charges in 1996, set against the backdrop of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's quality of life campaign and the Drug Enforcement Administration's war on ecstasy.

Gatien, a Canadian who built a club empire beginning in the 1970s that included Tunnel, Palladium and several other Limelight locations, was acquitted of most of the tax charges and served 60 days in jail.

On the red carpet Friday, former Limelight fixtures reflected on the transformation of the Limelight space and Manhattan as a whole.

"Giuliani wasn't the enemy — the enemy was that it got too big," former manager Steven Lewis said of the club, which was shuttered several times by police for drugs.

The hotspot, which first opened in 1983, gained infamy after party promoter and regular Michael Alig killed and dismembered drug dealer Angel Melendez in 1996.

Lewis said that the city lost something with the demise of Limelight in 2001. The club was a place where a diverse mix of DJ's allowed hip hop fans and hipsters to party in one place.

"If Mozart would have walked into Limelight, he would have said it was cool," he said.

The club on 20th Street and Sixth Avenue also represented a time when artists, musicians and fledgling fashion designers had more pull with bouncers than they do today, according to Miami-based director Billy Corben ("Cocaine Cowboys.")

"Now, your barrier to entry is your credit card limit," Corben said, citing $25 cover charges at other clubs.

But more than anything else, Corben and producer Alfred Spellman said they simply hope the film will provide audiences with a larger sense of context, and the ability to judge for themselves whether or not the club's and Gatien's fates were just.

"New York is certainly safer, cleaner and more family friendly now," said Spellman. "But maybe less creatively vibrant."

As for the luxury marketplace that now operates in the church hall once home to pounding bass lines, Lewis said he enjoys it and is happy to see the space in use.

DJ Junior Vasquez, on the other hand, expressed dismay at the year-old Limelight Marketplace.

"I just loved that space," Vasquez said. "I'm angry when I walk by — a mall?"

"Limelight" is also screening Sun., April 24 at 9 p.m. at AMC Loews Village.

Movie premiere tickets for the festival can be won by entering DNAinfo's Tribeca Film Festival sweepstakes here.