Stitched together like a seductive tapestry, the documentary McQueen tells the life of the late London fashion designer with the sort of dramatic, violent, dark-edged flamboyance Alexander “Lee” McQueen poured into his own catwalk shows.
Using offcuts, fragments and friends, the film tailors a dazzling portrait of the east London lad who shot through the 90s London fashion scene like a comet. By 2010, he was burned out, and the doc starkly illustrates the frenetic demands on modern creative genius.
It’s a noisy, brooding mix – acquaintances and ex-lovers, family members and co-workers, commentators, models and media all chime in with opinion and memory, and there’s plenty of footage of Lee himself making pronouncements and sounding arrogant but brilliant: “My shows are about Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll. It’s for the excitement and the goosebumps. I want heart attacks. I want ambulances.”
To run through the whole film would be to spoil it for those who don’t know the full trajectory of his career, from Savile Row apprentice, to head of French fashion house Givenchy and pioneer of his own brand and label. The film makers – Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui – weave a stylish thesis haunted by McQueen’s signature skull motifs, told in chapters (or “tapes”). The use of graphics to illustrate chronology and the filling in of an unconventional CV are used, I think, to reflect McQueen’s rejection of the normal.
There are moments when you think he’s not an enfant terrible, he’s just a very naughty boy, trying to shock – the Highland Rape show still doesn’t work for me, even if I do learn here of McQueen’s own exposure to abuse – but when it all comes together with showmanship, craftsmanship, a glint of mischief and a blurt of anger, the results are glorious. McQueen at his best digs deep into what fashion can mean, often by stripping bare its soul – and his.
I’ve often struggled to understand the lasting brilliance of McQueen. There isn’t an iconic piece or a trend you could call his that has endured and influenced – his brand is arguably more successful and wearable now that he’s gone, his legacy more as a showman of Savage Beauty than as a designer of clothes anyone can wear.
But this excellent, often thrilling film – chivvied along by one of Michael Nyman’s best scores in ages – reveals his passion and his fire, his use of fashion as expression and theatre, its power as performance and story, clothes that feel like an extension of the human soul in all its incandescent ambition and all its flammable self-destruction.