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Doc Corner: 'McQueen'

Of all the fashion designers who have been given the biographic documentary treatment in the last decade, perhaps none feel as appropriate for the cinema than the late Lee Alexander McQueen. There have been many designers whose work is in a way cinematic – including others from 2018 alone like Guo Pei (Yellow is Forbidden) and Vivienne Westwood (Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist), although the success of those films vary – McQueen the man is such a vividly big personality, even in his quiet and introspective moments, that a film about him is naturally going to boast a more broad appeal and intense fascination.

In McQueen we witness the boy who rose from working class roots in London’s East End buying fabrics with his government dole money to working on dozens of fashion lines a year for a variety of brands and world famous fashion houses.

Seen through personal tapes and footage from his increasingly elaborate and astonishingly striking runway shows, director Ian Bonhōte and co-director Peter Ettedgui assembles with beautiful clarity the essence of not just Lee’s work, but Lee’s humanity, too. We watch as he agonises and toils over his designs, physical embodiments of his active and often troubled mind, and revels in the power they have to stun and shock. The confronting beauty his work often possesses and the vulgarity of his themes juxtaposed against the sweetness of his personality that struggled with fame.

There have been many documentaries about fashion, especially lately, which makes sense since the boldness often found in the artistic creation of clothes works in perfect harmony with the specific assets of film. None have bested Unzipped about Isaac Mizrahi from over 20 years ago, but that’s a tall order considering that film is the Citizen Kane of fashion docs in my eyes. Still, while these biographical docs too often lately feel uninspired – I am thinking of last year’s House of Z or even Dior and I – like some contractual obligation, this one hums to the rhythm of its subject’s unique talents. It’s a documentary that finds genuine pleasure in the simple acts of watching people create and craft an outfit and what it means to make a statement with fashion. It’s a documentary that is genuinely intrigued by the man at its centre down to his very bones and not just the clothes he creates, offering equal weight to his many facets without dissolving into icky tabloidery. It’s a documentary that doesn't let the man off the hook for his transgressions, while also allowing us to celebrate his successes.

It also lets the art to much of the talking. It feels like a privilege to be able to witness it whether its in his fuzzy VHS personal diaries and home movies or across the exquisite and sharply edited shows that wowed the world. McQueen’s visions were something special utilising technology and theatre in often surprising ways. Bonhōte, Ettegui and editor Cinzia Baldessari are wise to allow these scenes to unfold largely uninterrupted, McQueen's voice occasionally heart over the top. Music by Michael Nyman is also a nice surprise, a lush textural addition that amplifies the power that McQueen's clothes already have.

Political, religious and social commentary ran through his work and McQueen largely avoids making any grand statements about them, but that’s in keeping with the film’s less sensationalised take on the designer’s life. Of course, the end to McQueen’s story is one of immense sadness having taken his own life in 2010 following the death of his mother as well as that of Isabella Blow in 2007. It would be easy for Bonhōte and Ettegui to hang the spectre of his death over the film like funereal veil, and while it’s true his mental health lingered over his career, Lee Alexander McQueen himself is never truly seen as a doomed tragic figure like other documentaries about the likes of Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston. He was complicated, but McQueen celebrates all of him across his life and career and revels in the sheer beauty of his work and the mind that created them.

Release: Limited release from this weekend in NY and LA care of Bleecker Street films, followed by San Francisco next week and presumably more to follow.

Oscar Chances: The Academy has never been a fan of fashion documentaries, not even those about Hollywood costumers. That being said, if any were going to finally crack through, it would be McQueen. It's the sort of one that could get people talking and cross over from just those of us who watch movies like these into the wider industry (ala Amy, for instance). I wouldn't count on it, mind you, but there's a sliver of potential if people decide to make a cause of out it.

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Reader Comments (9)

I saw this in the UK last week. I was fascinated because I am/was very ignorant of most of the story (I.e. the fashion world, his background, etc.) so it was very interesting to me. Especially the relationship with Blow and reflections on his gender politics. Would recommend.

July 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

I thought it was great. It gives abundant evidence of McQueen's achievements and it celebrates his life while amply conveying the tragic side. He comes across as extremely likeable, attractive, talented and driven - but also haunted and, eventually, beyond reach. It's an excellent film, very well balanced, full of fascinating talking heads, and beautifully put together.

And Oscar should bite!

July 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Agree. This should be the fashion documentary that makes it through to the final 5.

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