British designer Alexander McQueen was an ordinary man who made extraordinary clothes. Or at least that’s the main takeway of Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary McQueen. The story of a small-town London bloke becoming one of the most iconic designers in history is fascinating on its surface, and it where McQueen’s directors return to most often in its nearly two-runtime exploration of McQueen and his controversial fashions. But like McQueen himself – or at least the man as he’s described by others – there’s a remove to events, a distancing from things that feels sanitized if you’ve done any in-depth research on Alexander McQueen. McQueen sates audiences’ desires to hear about the man’s origins, the mania that fueled his creations, and his ultimate downward spiral, but it only ever feels like a pattern waiting to be sewn together.
McQueen’s life could have turned out like anyone else’s. He grew up the youngest of six and had a relatively innocent childhood. But McQueen and his family knew he was different, starting with his penchant for drawing clothes. The documentary sets up the basic rags to riches plotline, but immediately sets up McQueen’s brash braggadocio. This was a man whose basic upbringing simultaneously instilled him in a confidence big enough to go to Italy – without knowing anyone – and immediately getting an assistant job to a prominent designer. There’s a charged atmosphere to everything in McQueen, mainly due to Bonhote and Ettedgui’s dark sentimentality.
Gaudy skulls act as chapter markers for each of the film’s “tapes” or segments, reminding audiences of the darkness that would eventually consume the designer. There’s a basic understanding of the man McQueen was. McQueen could be, at times, a jerk who took things so personally he’d outright ignore people who left his company, yet the directors understand that it is this ability to compartmentalize that allowed the designer to see his visions so clearly. He loved his mother dearly and it is her death that would eventually push him over the edge.
The film’s nearly two-hour runtime is heavily skewed towards focusing on McQueen’s role as designer, from the creation of his first show to his work for the house of Givenchy. If you don’t intimately know the fashion world or the minute intricacies of McQueen’s career it is hard to get your bearings in the hodgepodge of discussions that take place. The early formation of McQueen’s fashion line and the ragtag group of people he assembles is solid, and much of what we know about the designer is through the eyes of the young kids he gave an opportunity to work alongside them, often with no pay. (One of the subjects interviewed humbly says “they were working for him.”) There’s a frantic, frenetic attempt to harness the power of a mind constantly in flux, organizing and presenting it in a way that works for a filmed medium and sometimes you’re left wondering about the deeper thoughts inherent in certain decisions.
This comes through sharpest in McQueen’s personal life, which also seems like a taboo subject in how it’s completely avoided. One of McQueen’s ex-boyfriends is interviewed, but he speaks in generalities about McQueen’s life. Other relationships, including a marriage ceremony are fully excised. The film also doesn’t discuss McQueen’s sexuality in any significant way. This silence ends up muting the reveal that McQueen was HIV+ towards the end of his life, a fact revealed with all the emotional weight of listing what type of fabrics he preferred. A documentary doesn’t necessarily have to discuss its subject on a personal level, but when so much of the designer’s work was influenced by his mental state – particularly towards the end – to ignore his personal life is lazy at best and malicious at worst.
But it’s impossible not to be wowed by what an utter genius McQueen was, and what McQueen, the documentary, does so skillfully is look at the various clothes. Nearly all of McQueen’s best shows are presented, from his controversial Highland Rape to his poetical Plato’s Atlantis. But the highlight has to be his controversial Voss show. The documentary gives a fair amount of time to documenting the show’s creation but nothing can replicate McQueen’s own mind as models, confined in a square room meant to mimic a mental asylum is showcased. The entire thing is breathtaking and proves McQueen was a genius.
McQueen is a frustrating documentary about an equally frustrating subject. The audience will leave knowing only slightly more about the designer as they did beforehand. Stay for the clothes and the sad concepts of what might have been.