He scoured the shadows and alleys for inspiration. Jack the Ripper, lesbian vampires, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, and feral beasts were all muses for fashion designer Alexander McQueen. His superbly unwearable collections were the stuff of sartorial nightmares. McQueen’s runway shows were the sexiest, most astonishing freak shows in London.
Perhaps the greatest service “McQueen” directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui offer in their documentary about the British designer, who took his life in 2010 at age 40, is putting footage of McQueen’s runway shows on the big screen for a wide(ish) audience. If you have any intention of seeing “McQueen” make sure you see it in a theater for full effect. The question of whether or not you should see “McQueen” is something we’ll address shortly.
His clothes, embellished with blood-red lab slides, dying flowers, antlers sprouting uncomfortably from shoulders, and leather S&M straps, were already sumptuous cinematic affairs that told stories and (literally) chewed scenery. They’ve always been ready for their close-up, and here they are, as dangerous as Norma Desmond’s tightly wrapped turban.
The good news is you don’t need to know the name André Leon Talley or be familiar with an Empire silhouette to appreciate McQueen, the man or the documentary. “McQueen” is not a fashion movie cluttered with industry talking heads or the celebrities who loved his work. It’s primarily family, friends, and employees — although often all of those categories blurred in his world — who tell the tale of the chubby working class teen from East London who went on to form his own label and eventually collapse under the weight of its success.
And what a story his coterie tells. The first 30 minutes of “McQueen” is a breathless rags-to-riches tale of the scrappy son of a cab driver who wowed Savile Row, worked his way into the prestigious fashion program at Central St. Martin’s college, and then became the provocateur of British fashion, initially staging runway shows with money from his unemployment checks. By 27 he was both running his own label and acting as creative director for Givenchy in Paris.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui leave viewers winded from the pace of the ascent. But much the way we know that there was a rise, we also know a fall is imminent. This is where “McQueen” wobbles. There are stories of cocaine, liposuction, and childhood abuse. There’s more, lots more, but it’s unspoken. If you want the full picture, you’ll need to pick up one of the multiple McQueen biographies written since his death. With so much access to family and runway footage, along with video recorded by McQueen and his friends at the directors’ disposal, the gaps in McQueen’s story are frustrating.
Asif Kapadia’s 2015 poignant “Amy” should serve as a template for how to assemble a celebrity documentary in the 2010s. Kapadia captured Amy Winehouse’s frightening implosion in his film, by never turning away and never flinching. But often the closest we’re allowed to get to darkest parts of McQueen’s psyche is through his runway collections, particularly the violent 1995 “Highlands Rape.” McQueen’s HIV-positive status is mentioned by a friend in one sentence, and never mentioned again.
In gaining access to McQueen’s inner circle, did Bonhôte and Ettedgui hem the frayed story they set out to tell? The designer’s clothes never shied from those back-alley demons, therefore the soft-focus lens employed by the directors becomes apparent as McQueen’s descent unfolds.
For all its foibles, this is a beautiful film, and the chance to see McQueen’s passionate couture shows in theaters is a treat, particularly for those who missed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 record-shattering exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” But “McQueen” feels like a lost opportunity to tell a story that, if done properly, would be both visually and emotionally arresting.
Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui. Written by Ettedgui. At Kenmore Square. 111 minutes. R (language and nudity).Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.