McQueen

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UK Release Date 8th June 2018
Director Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgu
Starring Lee Alexander McQueen
Runtime 111 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 7th June 2018

We’re not exactly what you’d call fashionistas here at BS Towers. Well, I can certainly vouch for 50% of us in that respect. Everyday fashion is generally something occurring in the background, high fashion? Well, that’s just about as far removed from our area of expertise as you can get. So, how did we find our way to Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgu’s documentary about London’s most famous enfant terrible? Well, the simple answer is that it was a freebie, followed by drinks. But don’t let that distract from how much we enjoyed this movie.

McQueen, the movie, is simple in structure but endlessly fascinating as it tracks the eponymous designer from his working class Stratford roots, through Saville Row, Paris, St. Martin’s, London, Paris again and back to London. Taking the form of five ‘tapes’, each named after one of McQueen’s signature showpieces. The filmmakers have secured a substantial amount of archive footage, taking in all the major players in his upbringing, pieced together to give us a breathless and explosive tour of his rise and inevitable fall.

The inevitable fall, to the movie’s great credit isn’t dwelled upon and to a certain extent never feels like the inevitability it eventually was. We first pick up with the teenage McQueen, all puppy fat and gelled hair, struggling in school and pitching up on Saville Row for no more reason than he needed money and had spent all his time at school drawing clothes. Archive footage of his dear mother talks through his working class but far from poverty stricken childhood (his dad, glimpsed only in family film reels, was a black cab driver) and clips from Lee’s early years flesh out his own thoughts on the start of his journey. Seemingly a mix of moxy, good luck and natural talent sees the young designer head off to Paris with not a word of French under his belt, securing a seven month apprenticeship with a fashion house. 

The combination of talent and almost casual determination is something that set McQueen aside from the rest of the fashion world. Determined to present his own inner thoughts and demons through his fashion, as he is launched into the world of Givenchy, the movie juxtaposes a traditional Paris catwalk against McQueen’s burgeoning CV. A more blistering contrast would be difficult to name. The dull, staid, floral world of Paris high fashion in the 90’s seemingly disappearing under the dark, brilliant, brooding shadow of a kid who not only didn’t understand the language but went out of his way to completely ignore any kind of convention.

The filmmakers pull together archive footage of Isabella Blow, arguably McQueen’s greatest muse, along with current day talking heads from his inner circle, other mentors and, most affectingly his elder sister and her son. It’s revealed early on that McQueen and his sister both suffered abuse from her husband. “He’s dead now, thank god” McQueen throws out at one stage, forever dodging behind his dark humour and infectious chuckling to protect himself from scrutiny. The childhood abuse clearly shaped his work substantially and his incredibly complex relationship with women in particular.

And all he while we are fed parts of his private life by the talking heads, in the background McQueen is seen blasting the existing fashion world to pieces, slowly building it up in his own remarkable image. McQueen comes across very much as a man of his time. The 1990’s were a fervent time for anyone looking to disrupt the status-quo and McQueen took the opportunity with both hands, landing himself in a wide variety of tabloid pieces bemoaning this ‘misogyny’ and mocking the overtly theatrical and savage set pieces at his shows. The pace is frightening and utterly exhausting to the point where you genuinely start to wonder how he did it. 

There are elements of a typical rise and fall story, the friends snubbed, relationships ruined, fast wealth but the movie doesn’t sensationalise these parts any further than they are already sensational. This is important in a movie about such a bright star. Attempts to glorify or demonise his existence would feel wrong, McQueen did those things to his own life without the help of a movie. In the whirling spectacle of his family, colleagues, shows and lovers, you get the sense that the real McQueen is only ever really glimpsed fleetingly. Flashes of footage as he wields a pair of fabric shears inches away from a model or tears a huge hole in the fabric of a skirt, his entire being focussed on creating a living, moving sculpture from the darkest depths of his psyche..... It’s momentarily mesmerising and just as soon as you feel the peace he must have felt in that moment of pure creative concentration, it’s pulled away from you as the day to day of show preparation lands with all its chaos.

And that’s the heart and soul of this wonderful documentary. It carefully lays out Lee Alexander McQueen’s life into neat chapters but within those spaces are turmoil, love, desire, anger, despair, loneliness, camaraderie and the utterly fascinating sight of one of life’s genuine one-offs. A man who created a brand, tore up a system and did everything exactly as he wanted without compromise. A true artistic giant who, in the end, couldn’t turn away from his fashion world because that would have meant turning towards himself. And that was a show he just couldn’t stand to watch.

In Brief:

McQueen the man was an utter force of nature but not in the screaming banshee sense, indeed his absolute shyness it obvious to anyone who has seen him salute at the end of one of his shows. McQueen the movie is a careful, respectful and spellbinding tour of the man’s world. The filmmakers have done well to curate a wide range of archive footage and have secured insightful interviews with those closest to him. Chapters bookended with the sheer bombast of his visceral shows pile up to emphasise the growing pace and urgency of his existence. A wonderful creation utterly deserved of a unique individual.  

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