The subject of McQueen’s life has become the focus of numerous cinematic ventures, but none so far have captured the designer’s essence as successfully as Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui documentary, McQueen. From the moment the opening credits unfold, the majesty that was ever present in both the fashion designer’s name and work is assertively converted to the viewer’s screen in stunning, gilded visuals. Accompanied immediately by Michael Nyman’s haunting score, the documentary establishes a key point of tension which it will continuously revisit in its duration: McQueen’s’ personal lack of pretention and apparent disregard for the establishment, which would come to profoundly horrify and amaze his critics in equal measure. A major strength of their oeuvre is the composition and careful orchestration of existing footage and its overlay with new visual material and interviews. Bonhôte and Ettedgui freely admit to having sourced a large part of their material from YouTube, yet their real strength can be found in the interviews conducted with initially resistant but important figures, such as Lee’s sister and early design influence and employer Koji Tatsuno. The directors have also succeeded in ensuring any cinematic artistry is purely established to complement McQueen’s work, rather than attempt to overshadow it.
The directors deal astutely with the breadth of McQueen’s work by focusing on a restrained selection of collections of particular note, Highland Rape (A/W 1995) and Voss (S/S 2001). Both collections transport anyone viewing them to a place of discomfort, where the lines between beauty and pain are blurred and interlocking. The Asylum-esque setting of Voss transcends fashion and breaches into the territory of performance art, with the one-way mirrored walls creating an atmosphere of eerie clinical observation. No critical acclaim or analysis can compare to the feeling of seeing these shows for oneself, no matter how many times they are revisited. In allowing the shows to speak for themselves repeatedly with only Nyman’s score intertwining, McQueen soars.
The documentary functions at its best when it is centred around McQueen in conjunction with the clothes he created, exploring and unrooting the vastly more political and historical subtexts which are not immediately obvious when appraising the shows themselves. One of McQueen’s greatest talents was his ability to control and manipulate the emotions of his viewers as he decided. Yet like any good performance, there is far more to seminal shows such as Highland Rape and Plato’s Atlantis (S/S 2010)than the initial emotion led reaction allows for. The unpacking of McQueen’s personal life in conjunction with his shows allows for further exploration, however occasionally veers unnecessarily into the designer’s personal and intimate issues and struggles in a manner which is somewhat crass.
Whilst it is natural that McQueen’s personal battles with his weight, addiction and depression feature to an extent in this documentary, towards the end these begin to somewhat overshadow the artistry itself. This would be excusable had McQueen’s work deteriorated alongside his mental health, however many critics consider his final completed collection (Plato’s Atlantis) to be his most accomplished to date. McQueen’s death itself is handled aptly, with little to no focus on grotesque details and instead an emphasis on incredibly raw interview footage of those close to him, as well as the designer’s impressive legacy. Despite combining elements as fragmented as McQueen’s influences, this cinematic tribute seamlessly crafts a narrative of the designer’s growth and development.
Now available on Netflix, this biopic represents an opportunity unlike any other to experience the transcendental magic of Alexander McQueen’s work.