2019, NR, 105 min. Directed by Frédéric Tcheng.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., June 7, 2019
The evolution of contemporary documentaries continues to fascinate in the ways filmmakers tell their tales. By thinking around a story of a celebrity rise and fall, by utilizing technology to bridge gaps in continuity, to creating a hybrid, a film that meshes fact and fiction, it is quite interesting to take a look from a macro lens, and see the ways in which true stories are being told. The life of Roy Halston Frowick – best known in haute couture as simply Halston – is one of a rising star and the inevitable, eventual decline. And, of course, death. There is always death. But if you aren’t familiar with this fashion icon, I can refer you to a certain pillbox hat worn by one first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. That was Halston’s work, who began his career as a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman in the early Sixties before riding that wonderful wave of Seventies sex & drug nostalgia, and becoming a superstar (for a time) of the fashion world.
Which makes Halston all the more curious in the way it has chosen to frame this man’s very extravagant life. French director Frédéric Tcheng seems to be cornering the market on docs about fashion (see Dior and I and his 2012 debut Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel for reference), but his decision to bookend and drop in narration with a fictional character, voiced by fashion journalist Tavi Gevinson, "investigating" Halston's life is a distracting and unneeded device. Her voiceover, with that sad saxophone film-noir soundtrack, is horribly out of place, and taints an otherwise intriguing portrait of a man from Iowa who became a fashion legend.
Barring the aforementioned framing device, the film is your typical bio doc on a famous person, utilizing footage and photos, piecing together the story of a fashion icon. At the time of his apex, he was exclusively dressing Liza Minnelli, chilling with Andy Warhol, and creating hot pants. The Seventies unfurl with the usual decadence, so let’s fill in the bingo card: Studio 54, cocaine, movie stars, and affairs should get you on the board. But it is the chapter of Halston’s life in the early Eighties which is the most fascinating. At the height of his career, he partnered with J.C. Penney Co. to work on affordable lines of clothing for women, among other products. What happens next shouldn’t surprise anyone in this world we live in, but he was eaten alive and pushed out, his brand marketed and sold for fun and profit, without any say from Halston himself.
The commodification of art or aesthetics is nothing new, but this is a pretty acute depiction of a post-mortem. I just wish Tcheng didn’t feel the need for unnecessary flourishes. There is a wonderful scene of archival footage where Halston takes a single sheet of fabric and uses scissors and one seam, and creates a simple but beautifully elegant dress. The filmmaker should have taken a note from that minimalist and flawless execution of a master designer.
For an interview with Tcheng, read "Gold, Glimmer, Greed," April 12.