Telling stories of so-called ‘troubled geniuses’ is tough in any medium, but particularly in documentary. The form gives the content an immediate air of authenticity and objectivity that gives it a level of authority over other interpretations of the same story. On top of that, you have to walk an increasingly fine line in depicting a near mythic notion of humanity: Go too heavily one way and you descend into hagiography; swing too much to the other and you risk revelling in a voyeuristic display of your subject’s pain. Audiences’ appetites for the tortured genius have waned in recent years too, especially since it’s a trope all too frequently applied to white dudes who either don’t deserve it or use it as a cloak for their brutal indiscretions.
All of this is to say that, going into McQueen, the new documentary on famed fashion designer Alexander McQueen, I feared the worst. McQueen is something of a creative idol for me - A working class kid who defied expectations and became one of modern fashion’s true rebels - but he’s always been a figure mired in darkness, controversy and mystery. McQueen committed suicide in 2010, and his self-described autobiographical fashion revealed a tempestuous figure who inspired revulsion as much as adoration. Andrew Haigh, the director of 45 Years and Lean On Pete, was supposed to make a McQueen biopic with Jack O’Connell (which is the most ridiculously perfect casting), but that fell apart, so Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary may be the only piece we get of McQueen for the time being. Fortunately, it’s a damn good one.
McQueen offers an expansive overview of its subject’s life. As an East London boy who didn’t do great in school and as characterized as looking like a ‘yob’, Lee Alexander McQueen wasn’t the typical fashion figure. Through Savile Row apprenticeships and studying at the famed Central Saint Martins school, he began to define a unique style through re-imaginings of classic silhouettes and a willingness to shock. After being spotted by the legendary Isabella Blow, who became a friend/mentor/parental figure (she also convinced him to go by his middle name because it sounded more refined), he became a major name on the London art scene, which led to landing the top job at Givenchy.
Of course, the most notable work of McQueen was done under his own label, and the film is at its best when it offers insight into his inspirations, methods and the team behind him helping to create the magic. The documentary is broken into several segments, each named after one of his most famous shows, which punctuates his rise and ambitions. The work gets bigger, stranger, and more emotionally tumultuous. Legendary shows like Highland Rape, which inspired claims of misogyny, and Voss, perhaps his magnum opus, are contextualized in terms of his life, increasing fame and ever more lofty expectations. To see so much of the focus on the work as well as the man is a refreshing reminder of just how bloody good McQueen was. Here was a genius who earned that label.
Spliced in-between these major media moments are home videos by McQueen and friends which show him young, giddy and enjoying the process of work. He tears through materials - often literally - with the kind of youthful zeal that seems to terrify the refined seamstresses around him. Clips with friends show him having a bawdy sense of humour and the fierceness of a kid who can’t believe he’s getting away with it all. The fun doesn’t last long, as the workloads increase to levels that were dramatic even by the industry’s standard, and the pressures to keep up send him towards cocaine, liposuction, paranoia, and depression.
Usually, when a documentary about a renowned artist tries to draw definitive lines between their work and their personal lifes, I shudder. Death of the author exists for a reason and all too often when this analysis is applied it descends into lazy psychology. With McQueen, you have a figure who openly said that everything he did was deeply personal and inspired by his life, and often you hear interviews of him admitting that. This can make for fascinating, if discomfiting, viewing, whether you’re a McQueen devotee or a complete novice to the world of fashion. It’s hard not to look at a McQueen show like The Horn of Plenty or Voss and think about what he was going through to make it.
As with the tortured genius story, there are darker sides to reveal. McQueen is a loving document of its eponymous figure but it also pulls no punches. The coldness with which he ditched Isabella Blow once his star rose is covered, as is the cruelty with which he treated even his best friends. The accused misogyny of some of his work, like Highland Rape, is talked about (Jodie Kidd, one of the models from that show, even admits that she briefly thought he hated women because of it) but could have used more depth. This is a man who cloaked the female form in abrasive strength and made garments that could have doubled as weapons, but he still relied heavily on the shock value of a half-naked woman in shoes she could barely stand in. Perhaps that’s for another documentary.
If the documentary has any faults, it’s in its length, which gives the work room to breathe but often becomes a tad self-indulgent. The skull motif the film uses as bookmarks of sorts act as their own storytelling device, taking on the McQueen fashions of the time, but feel unnecessary given the ability of McQueen’s own work and the rest of the film to do that job. The Michael Nyman music scoring the film is beautiful - not a new one but full of the familiar notes from his work with Peter Greenaway - but are occasionally anxiety inducing in their seriousness, regardless of what’s actually happening on-screen. Details and key figures are omitted - Sarah Burton, his successor, is mentioned in one line and never appears on screen - but that won’t bother people coming into this story cold.
Even if you don’t care all that much about fashion, McQueen is very much worth your time. This is a story of a tragic figure but it’s also one of a working-class kid on the dole who took on one of the most elite industries on the planet and rewrote it by his own rules. In the aftermath of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain (as well as fellow fashion designer L’Wren Scott in 2014), it seems only right that we focus on the machinations of genius as well as the pressures that all too frequently accompany it.
McQueen is out on limited release in the U.K. It will be given a limited release in U.S.A. on 20th July. If you’re a fashion fiend, I am fully expecting you to post your favourite McQueen looks in the comments.
(Head photograph courtesy of Getty Images).