Glamour meets the grotesque in the couture of designer Alexander McQueen. Indeed, it's not by accident that a recent hit museum retrospective showcasing his work took the moniker Savage Beauty. For two decades as the enfant terrible of British fashion, he crafted clothing that didn't just make a statement, but screamed it down the catwalk, splashed it across glossy magazine pages and shouted it at the world at large. "I don't want to do a show that you walk out feeling like you've just had Sunday lunch," he once said. "I want you to walk out feeling repulsed or exhilarated — as long as it's an emotion."
That telling soundbite joins many others in McQueen, the film that ostensibly unpacks the life, career and death of its titular working-class lad turned tailoring apprentice turned provocative toast of the town. But, making their first full-length documentary, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui do much more than that. Theirs is a movie made in McQueen's image, keen to show more than tell even though it doesn't shy away from talking heads. The filmmakers are well aware that everyone already knows its rise-and-fall story, with the man called Lee by his friends ultimately committing suicide in 2010. Instead of pretending that it's telling viewers something new, the movie focuses on how it approaches its subject as much as it does the specific details of McQueen's story.
Cue chapters that take their names from his famous runway shows, in a segmented yet still cohesive film that takes its concept from another of McQueen's own comments. (In one of his trademark displays of cheek, he dubs his own candid home videos 'The McQueen Tapes'.) Each part stitches together a narrative about his fashions — from both his own label and his time at Givenchy — and the context surrounding each highlighted collection. The end result isn't as obvious as it might sound, of course. McQueen refuses to simply state that one particular aspect of McQueen's experiences gave rise to a specific element in his work. Rather, it explores the fabric of his life while demonstrating how he wrangled fabric in bold ways in his designs. The documentary doesn't need to blatantly connect the dots, as each sartorial series makes its own statement. With names such as Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims and Highland Rape, and challenging pieces within each collection to match, how could they not?
Throughout it all, McQueen remains a constant presence thanks to archival footage, while his family members, friends and colleagues offer their intimate recollections and reflections. Even for those unfamiliar with the minutiae, there's much that's recognisable. Never seeming the typical fashionista, McQueen parlayed his talent, artistic eye and hard work into a thriving career from the early 90s onwards. But with success, attention and notoriety came drugs, depression and despair, matters that the movie perhaps doesn't touch on in as much depth as it could've.
Still, even when it somewhat skirts over a few areas, the documentary proves revelatory in how it captures McQueen's complicated essence. The designer's clothing pieces were always going to feature prominently, but with its incredible detail, intricate construction and willingness to get dark, the film they're in feels like it was cut from the same cloth.
If one scene in McQueen particularly stands out, it's one that's all McQueen's doing. More than that, it's one that he staged with as much theatricality, spectacle and flair as he ever displayed: his 1999 spring show. In a stunning sight to behold, model Shalom Harlow wears a white strapless dress made voluminous with layers of tulle, spins on a rotating platform like a jewellery box ballerina, and is sprayed with paint by two adjacent robots. As a depiction of life splattering and changing something luminous, it's vivid, almost violent and certainly intoxicating, all as its creator intended. McQueen was clearly relaying a message and, in both featuring the runway moment within the film and adopting its attitude, Bonhôte and Ettedgui ensure that McQueen sports the same force and power.