Lee Alexander McQueen was a brilliant, say some genius designer from the East End of London. While living on the dole, he created one of the most innovative fashion houses in the world. He was a modern day rags-to-riches story, with all the triumphs and pitfalls that accompanies it.
Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui‘s documentary begins in a bombastic fashion. The opening credits, a chrome skull with images projected on it seems like a cross between Macbeth and the Crown. This is especially evident as the string-laden score arrives, mixing between an elegant and pensive tone that should always be conjoined to geniuses. The film astutely covers much of McQueen’s early rise by animating his CV. We’re then shown those houses and places he initially worked for and are given an insight into his promise. Most who speak about him say that they never discovered him, because you don’t discover talent. The talent is already there. However, they do paint an illuminating light of how effervescent that sort of genius is.
We then watch McQueen, as he rises from pauper to prince, much is accomplished with home video, which is all the rage in documentarian filmmaking today. However, the appeal has still not worn off here. In fact, home videos are usually used to contrast the personal from the public persona. Here, it demonstrates how alike those minds were for McQueen. That is, he was the same person at home as he was on the runway. He’s generous, mischievous, driven, and exhibits a dark sense of humor. And it’s that darkness, as the pressure builds and he moves from a broke fashion raconteur, to the marbled French halls of Givenchy, and later Gucci, that undoes him. And it’s in these tapes that we also see his manic genius at play. It’s rare to see an artist create, as the mechanization behind their creations is mostly behind closed doors. The fly on the way approach connects us not only with McQueen, but the work and craft of McQueen as well.
Nevertheless, one of the drawbacks of McQueen is its regurgitation of the normalization of violence against women by a genius figure. Though McQueen certainly never harmed women, and some of his designs did show them in empowering positions, his themes often played on their mutilation. His two shows: Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims and the Highland Rape are emblematic of this mutilation in the name of fashion. Whether that was McQueen’s artistic vision is secondary. It’s how we react to that vision, which says much about the violence depicted. The normalization in the name and honor of a genius is a tired trope that unfortunately finds its long fingers into here.
Also, I was disappointed by what became a fairly standard structure. As mentioned before, the initial sequences, with their use of regal strings and McQueen’s CV, do add a different element. They make the storytelling as “unique” as the designer himself. However, for someone who pushed the envelop as much as McQueen, the documentary becomes your normal talking head piece as we chronologically bound from show-to-show. And maybe this is meant to wear us down as much as it wore down McQueen, but I’m not sure if that intent was intended. Instead, I think we’re just in the samey elements of the documentary genre. A more aggressive filmmaking style may have added a more well-deserved panache for such a stirring figure.
Nevertheless, the honesty reflected in McQueen is unique and unvarnished. The documentary isn’t afraid to shy away from this man as a troubled individual. It’s not afraid to say that he was an asshole from time-to-time, cut throat even. Nowhere is that more obvious than his treatment of Elizabeth Blume, a woman who championed him and whose championing he later resented. The reflections upon him are mostly strikingly honest, as many of his former staff and collaborators were interviewed. And even when the documentary slips into the unavoidable tragic ending, it never hides the reasons for such a conclusion. That is, the pressure, the drugs, the deaths around him, and his own battle with HIV. For that honesty, McQueen himself may have been happy.