Framed as a series of ‘Tapes’ that give measure to the major stages of his all-too-short life and career, this intimate biographical documentary recounts the major achievements (and attendant torments) of the late haute couture designer Lee Alexander McQueen through revealing, emotional interviews with his friends, family, and lovers, and some of his closest professional confidants. It is a sad and acutely self-aware survey of a forcefully passionate genius, and it will, in all likelihood, move you to tears.
On the face of it, McQueen’s is a simple rags-to-riches story—one of a poor (but not intellectually impoverished) young man breaking into the notoriously cloistered high-fashion world while still on the dole. In just over two decades he went from an unassuming and arguably inarticulate Savile Row apprentice to creative director of Givenchy, and was later buoyed financially by, of all unlikely brands, Gucci.
The film runs through McQueen’s life in a straightforward chronological manner, but its makers manage to relay in grand style a much more relatable tale: one of a sharply focussed young man who so desperately wanted to do what he loved (and so wanted just to be loved) that he risked all-out destitution and professional exile. He never cared what anyone else thought, and strove to always surround himself with people who felt the same way.
In the final decade of his life, McQueen suffered terrible personal loss; this, combined with his being wholly consumed by his work, combined to become, evidently, an unsurmountable pressure. With a highly reverent eye, the film touches upon McQueen’s living with HIV and the deaths of his mother and closest professional ally, as well as his struggles with cocaine addiction and his experience of weight-loss surgery—topics that in less agile hands could have easily become maudlin and like a tabloid exposé respectively.
McQueen adored the minimalist compositions of his fellow Brit Michael Nyman, and the film would be nothing without his music as its soundtrack. Moving from the fiercely energetic (a sampling of grunty saxophone-based pieces written for Peter Greenaway films) at film’s start to those contemplative, melancholic solo-piano works for which he is perhaps best known (such as his soundtrack for The Piano), Nyman’s music forms the irrepressible, beating heart of the film. (It is a testament to his profound artistic ability that Nyman’s music works so well here and managed to give emotional force to a series of films working in an altogether different register—Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip faux docu-dramas.)
McQueen’s stagings of his ever-more-extravagant, dark, and deeply researched catwalk shows become visual and pulse-raising high points of the film. Working with only contemporaneous video and television footage (much of it created, of course, without a cinema screen in mind), directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui and their ensemble manage to truss it up and re-edit it into nothing short of movie magic.
One could perhaps have wished for a digression exploring the technicalities of McQueen’s works—how, exactly, did he make these magnificent-looking wearable works of art?—and the degree to which he was innovative in his staging of runway shows. There are probably many coffee-table books that detail exactly this, but it would have made the film a truly holistic survey.
McQueen screens in the New Zealand International Film Festival.