First came the actor, then the British director. But if you live and die for fashion, a documentary called “McQueen” could tell only one story, that of designer Alexander McQueen, whose extraordinary gifts, dark preoccupations and tragic death make for a completely engrossing, compulsively watchable film.
Even if the dramas and dictates of couturiers and catwalks mean little to you, it is hard to resist the propulsive energy that director Ian Bonhote and co-director and writer Peter Ettedgui bring to the story of a designer whose background, beliefs and gifts were not what one would expect.
Growing up in London’s nonposh East End, the youngest of six children of a cab driver, McQueen wrestled with demons from childhood. He committed suicide at age 40, a time when success was at his beck and call.
Rather than flee that darkness, McQueen used it as the essence of his creativity: “Everything I do is personal. You want to know me, just look at my work.”
And wild and terrifying work it often was. “I don’t want shows you come out of like you had Sunday lunch, I want you to be repulsed or exhilarated,” he said. “If you leave without emotion, I’m not doing my job properly.”
His gifts were visible from early in his career. “No one discovered Alexander McQueen,” a friend says. “You don’t discover talent. Talent is there. Alexander McQueen discovered himself.”
In this, the designer and the documentary bear a resemblance to Kevin Macdonald’s “Whitney,” another illustration of the reality that great ability does not ensure happiness; both feature individuals everyone knew were in trouble but no one was finally able to help.
Harum-scarum as these early days were, they seem to have been the happiest for McQueen, who was eager for success but did not always react well to it, especially not to the money that allowed for increased drug use.
A turning point came in 1997, when he was given the reins at Givenchy, the storied Paris design house. Among the things he did was fund his personal Alexander McQueen line, but the inevitable work pressures were not a good thing.
Sympathetic to the designer, the filmmakers persuaded many of McQueen’s friends and collaborators to talk on camera and used a propulsive Michael Nyman score to good effect.
As recounted in the film, aspects of McQueen’s life call up other associations. His love of falconry recalls Ken Loach’s “Kes,” and his suicide, a week after the death of his mother, is reminiscent of the death of pulp writer and Conan creator Robert E. Howard.
But finally, Alexander McQueen was sui generis, one of a kind, which is why more than a million people turned out in London and New York to see a posthumous exhibition of his work, and why this striking documentary is hard to get out of your mind.
Starring Alexander McQueen. Directed by Ian Bonhote.
Unrated. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 51 minutes.
Bottom line: Documentary about the fashion designer that’s hard to get out of your mind
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