Directed by: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui
Featuring: Alexander McQueen, Bernard Arnault, Joseph Bennett, Detmar Blow
Alexander McQueen:“You can only go forward by making mistakes.”
This week we see the release of yet another great documentary from last year on DVD, that is the excellent “McQueen” (2018). The past year has been an excellent year for documentaries not only on streaming or DVD but in cinemas which is a trend that goes against what many people may have expected. However I find this to be exactly what should be expected especially with the concentration of so-called ‘fake news’ that now exists on the internet, coupled with what has been coming from the White House under the Trump Presidency. In fact there was a thought that cinematic documentaries might be a thing of the past especially with the success as well as saturation of Disney-fied blockbusters invading multiplexes, in fact audiences have been flocking to cinemas to seek out stories about real people making real differences in times and places where many others have been marginalised and made powerless by the people in charge in their respective times. Some of the great, as well as critically received, not forgetting making money documentaires at the box office are: “Wont you be my neighbour?” (2018), “Three Identical Strangers” (2018), “Jane” (2018), “RBG” (2018), and my personal favourite “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017) with so many more. What this says about audiences is that they will seek out true stories told in the relative first person that are not only inspiring but are direct counter programming to the politics of the day as well as the lies that are being produced by a President who is not only artificial but hate fuelled. My belief as a fan of documentaries is that this genre will only gain in popularity, with the coming years being a boon as well as revealing the importance of truth in the media as well as the importance of researching decisions made by the electorate. It is no surprise that the rise in fake news, Donald Trump, racism and may other hate fuelled elements has been answered by artists creating documentaries that prove there can be positive outcomes when people choose to buck the system as well as believing in others, differences, freedom and most of all, love.
“McQueen” focuses on the life and career of fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen, from his start as a tailor, to launching and overseeing his eponymous line, and his untimely death by suicide.
This movie is almost a perfect example of what a good documentary should accomplish when the subject is one person as well as being about a very public body of work. It educates an audience who may know very little about both the subject and the relevant field in which that person operates. I had little real knowledge of Alexander McQueen as well as his work, but after viewing this I not only was exposed to someone truly gifted but I also learned about the fashion industry as well as how it operates and the importance of him to not only fashionistas, but how his loss has robbed the world of someone truly great, and I have no doubt would have followed Tom Ford into the world of cinemas in one way or another. McQueen had a visual style as well as the ability to execute what he saw in his mind not only into the clothes he designed but also channelling that into the runway shows that were more like art installations than anything else, which may have been one of his issues, as at times he seemed like he was destined to be in the Tait Modern than on the runways in Europe. In saying that this new documentary paints him as a lost soul whose path was always going to be tragic as well as self inflicted, which is a tragedy we will feel for decades to come. I do believe however that he did have people around him that he could have reached out to, possibly did, but they were unaware of the serious condition he was in.
Three are three main elements of this documentary which directly reflect why this is such a successful film, more so than many others released this year dedicated to one person. The most important element, firstly, is the existing video footage of McQueen himself talking to the camera from a very early age almost up to his death, about a variety of issues which really places the audience into his shoes, as well as not shying away from the person he is, or at least wanted people to see. This is the backbone of the film as far as I am concerned which reveals his character like little else, these parts of the narrative are revelatory. The next aspect is the fact that there are a great many people interviewed in structured environments just for this documentary as well as a multitude of interviews from other sources, which add to the overall narrative of the movie. These are as important as any interview with McQueen himself as they reinforce his own opinions of himself, making him a fascinating character indeed. Finally there are two other elements that are joined indelibly, they are the incredible footage of his runway projects that are all as different as each other which adds to the picture of McQueen as a man which is not shied away from in the slightest, these can be negative as well as poignant which again makes this such a fascinating documentary, as a viewer I felt I was being let in on a life that otherwise would have not only been unknown, but completely unknowable.
“McQueen” has been written and directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, who are quite new to directing, especially in the form of documentaries, which I have to admit I find difficult to believe. Both men have constructed a coherent narrative that really does follow the classic Hollywood narrative like many fictional stories do. Each part of the story is divided into chapters, which set out what is to follow, which is an easy way to break up each moment in McQueen’s life, always foreshadowing what is to come in terms of triumph as well as tragedy. The closest comparison in terms of how this documentary is put together, as well the way it is constructed, is the great film “Amy” (2015), a fantastic documentary about the tragic singer Amy Winehouse. There are many ways in which these two lives are similar, so we see some striking examples in both films that mirror each other, the kind of footage used, the people interviewed as well as the family involvement.
There is no doubt that one of the highlights (as well as lowlights) of “McQueen” is the running plot of the friendship/mentorship between McQueen and his friend Isabella Blow, which is linked to his change from upstart designer to leader of an industry as well as a man who seemed to be struggling with the weight of all that he taken on. When McQueen was near the beginning of his career he was carefree, he enjoyed spending time with people and seemed to be closest to Blow. However as he enjoyed success, work piled up and he felt like he owed it to people to stay busy, remain in the spotlight, this then made him isolated – he also became estranged from Blow, his choice. So when Blow died of cancer it is no wonder that McQueen felt a part of him die as well, which came to a head as well as being compounded when his Mother died, which is the defining part of the documentary as it leads directly to the tragic events that would follow.
It has been almost ten years since the death of Alexander McQueen which means there has been time for the remaining members of his family and friends to reflect on the time they had with him, they are almost all unanimous in that they loved the time they had with him. They definitely acknowledge that he was a unique soul who they all miss but in a way understand what he went through as a man who seemed to have everything but was for the most part a lonely figure who unjustly felt like he owed everyone something.
“McQueen” may seem like it is a depressing or sad documentary, but on the contrary it is reaffirming of what is possible in life, as well as a reminder that people are never alone if they choose not to be. Alexander McQueen left a body of work that is unique but ultimately unfinished, by choice, he had a loving family but was a tortured soul, his final end may seem like it was destined or preordained but it was not, he chose how he lived and ultimately died. I recommend this movie highly, in fact it is an easy film to watch again and again, it has some great flourishes visually and as it should be it is always concentrating on McQueen’s work which looks great on the screen, I only wonder what amazing work we missed out on as viewers because of the artists ultimate fate.