Film & TV Columnist Rosie Beattie reviews the documentary exploring the life of British designer Alexander McQueen
Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s recent documentary, McQueen, unapologetically shatters the myth of the tortured creative genius pervasive in art culture and posthumous cinematic homages. In its place remains the telling of the vision, complexities and struggles of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen who died by suicide in 2010. Archive footage and interviews with family members and friends provide a linear account of an honest and moving portrayal of McQueen’s struggle with his mental health. McQueen has managed to capture public attention – Sight and Sound has listed it as the highest grossing fashion documentary in the UK box office of all time – and constitutes a worthy addition to the recent composure of documentaries that detail the rise, fall and untimely death of prominent figures such as Amy Winehouse (Asif Kapadia, 2015) and Whitney Houston (Kevin McDonald, 2018).
We begin with the description of McQueen (Lee in his private life) as “a sweet boy from the East end”. From there, his journey from using unemployment benefit to pay for fashion materials to a millionaire icon unravels. At the start, the film paddles in the rags-to-riches cliché before shifting to more sinister grounds. The transition is tragic yet unsurprising. McQueen’s tendency to sabotage the rules of fashion and beauty by drawing on inspirations such as Jack the Ripper and the Patrick Süskind novel Perfume indicate a rebellion against the industry he would grow to represent. His success follows revelations of depression, drug abuse and liposuction. Nuances in his personality are noted and the Lee McQueen remembered by family members eventually dissipates and the public figure Alexander McQueen emerges.
Despite his weaknesses, the film succeeds in portraying McQueen as an admirable man and public figure. Bonhôte and Ettdgui’s compilations of archive footage make for a visually engaging watch. Accompanied by a powerful and at times eerie score by Michael Nyman, we are shown some of McQueen’s most infamous collections including “Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims” – his graduation collection – and the 1995 “Highland Rape”. The collections feature women staggering down the catwalk, exposed in ripped dresses. His shows were provocative, unexpected and dazzling. In a world where clothes are deemed to be precious, McQueen scandalously rips, tarnishes and splatters them in paint. In one interview, McQueen claimed that his designs are aimed at repulsing or exhilarating their audiences.
The documentary leaves no questions as to why McQueen was considered controversial, even criticised by some as sadistic and misogynistic. Above all else, however, the film tributes an artist who had a unique vision. McQueen’s designs were considered so controversial because, like the artist himself, they stretched so far from the sphere of the fashion industry. As well as achieving an honest portrait of McQueen, the film provides a platform for his outlandish collections which continues to work its magic on audiences from the catwalk to the screen.