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Doc Corner: Susanne Bartsch and Antonio Lopez Take the Center Stage

By Glenn Dunks

Almost as ubiquitous as biographies of famous musicians (several of those coming in the next month) are documentaries about party icons of queer history. We’ve already had the exploits of The Fabulous Allan Carr and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood in 2018 s, and now we can add two more titles: Susanne Bartsch: On Top and Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco.

Mother of the club kids, the nicknamed “Queen of the Night” and party planner extraordinaire, Susanne Bartsch is probably best known for her role in putting together the Love Ball in 1989. The AIDS fundraiser with people like Madonna in attendance (no doubt a formative moment in the creation of her single “Vogue”) was iconic in ways that likely gets forgotten about without films like this one to thrust it in their face and remind them. Footage from the ball is pivotal to On Top to contextualize her notoriety as more than just a famous-for-being-famous type of social queen, the likes of which flourished in the time after Warhol in New York City...

Like many films of this variety, Anthony Caronna and Alexander Smith’s lively documentary lives or dies on its ability to transport the audience to a wilder, crazier time and place through grungy vintage video. Alongside the Love Ball footage is all manner of footage from the 1980s including quite importantly early video of RuPaul, whom Bartsch is strongly responsible for bringing into the wider scene of New York’s anything-goes atmosphere. Interwoven throughout are the preparations for a museum exhibition of the costumed that garnered her the most attention.

It’s ravishing to watch all of these moments and then to see them juxtaposed against today’s club kid scene which Bartsch is still very much a part of and is in many ways just as vibrant and electric and full of imaginative decadence albeit past its moment of zeitgeist pop cache. While her influence carries on, it is no doubt not lost at all on use and Bartsch herself that LGBTQ people today have more ways of expressing themselves and so likely do not need the catharsis of a Friday night decked out in crazy painted creations. And yet that’s ultimately where the film succeeds – by showing the way the world evolved with her, Susanne Bartsch: On Top doesn’t reduce her legacy to that of mere party planner. Rather it makes a stand for her as somebody who deserves her place in the hall of queer icons. Bartsch herself is an entertaining presence, debating what to wear and what to put on her face.

Occupying a different world, yet one with no less colour and vibrancy is James Crump’s Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco, which plants its gaze on the late fashion illustrator of the title. Much like Bartsch, I knew little of the person at the centre of his documentary, although in the process of watching I realized I recognised more than I thought I would. Lopez, inspired by all manner of styles including pop art.

Whereas On Top relied heavily on its thrilling archival footage, Crump’s ace are the vivacious interviews that dot the film. Particularly those by Bill Cunningham and former Lopez model and muse Jessica Lange. You can tell they are true lovers of Lopez’s work because of how spry and animated they are throughout the documentary. If Lopez’s work – bold and expressive with striking use of colour and lines – wasn’t enough to convince you, then the reverential talking heads would do it. This is no dry collection of historians and fans, which it easily could have been considering Crump’s art historian background, but rather people who were deeply entwined with the subject and their enthusiasm comes through like one of the bright uses of block colours that Lopez was so fond of.

While the story has less of a drive and less of a continually compelling narrative to hang a feature’s hat on – He found success early and sadly died in 1987 from medical complications related to AIDS – there’s nonetheless a thrill to be had in hearing this story of a successful, bisexual, Latino man. Especially in the shadow of The Gospel According to Andre from earlier this year, it’s important that people like this have their story told. Is has less to enthral over 90 minutes than Susanne Bartsch: On Top, but Antonio Lopez 1970 still works for those with even a passing interest in any of the fashion, disco and sex of the title.

Release: Susanne Bartsch: On Top is out in LA now and on VOD for the rest of the country from today. Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco opens in NYC this Friday.

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Reader Comments (3)

I was a bit disappointed with the Antonio López documentary and yet I would totally see it again. I love that era!

Jerry Hall deserves her own documentary. She's divine.

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