Film Review: “The Gospel according to Andre”

Andre Leon Talley is a 20th century fashion icon: former creative director at Vogue, friend of many designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Diane Fustenberg and fashion editors Anna Wintour and Diana Vreeland….. I’m just back from viewing the documentary on him at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  Here’s the trailer:

This is an inspiring story of someone who grew up in a segregated southern state of America, but with the unwavering support of a refined inspirational grandmother who raised him, he chose to reinvent himself as who he is now: a successful black man in the world of fashion which was and is white-dominated.

Although I found Andre fascinating and personable in the film, I found the documentary editing style by Kate Novack patchy and unsatisfying.  It was like being led through a maze by someone who just breezed through with a machete.  In particular, it ended not with a bang or a whimper but a – nothing.  We see Andre having a skin treatment, which involves making a creme mask which is then lifted off.  Ah!  A very unsubtle metaphor for us having seen below the mask of the public persona.  However, don’t leave the cinema just yet, there is another scene – a recording of Andre in his garden, mentioning that he likes the rabbits living there.  But not so much the deer and definitely not the skunks.  End of film.

I was also puzzled by the use of intertitles – e.g. “2: the young ingenue”.  Such things have scarcely been used from the Silent film era, when you had to use the black screen with writing, to make clear what was going on.  I wonder if these were either a suggestion by Andre, the much-read, to mimic a book.  Or – and this is my preferred thought – introduced by the filmmaker as a desperate attempt to introduce a sense of cohesion and progression to the story?

Between the start and end, it seems like every celebrity who knew him is wheeled on to give a tiny morsel of an interesting anecdote, before being quickly pulled offscreen to make way for the next famous person.  We see Andre going to a “farm” which is actually Isabella Rossellini’s own home – for no especial reason in revealing who Andre is, but footage of her giant pet pigs and a rooster called “Andy Warhol” because it has a shock of white feathers on top of its head.  (Amusing, but just a quick joke)   More useful insights come by way of Anna Wintour (former editor of American Vogue), designer Diane von Furstenberg and actor Whoopee Goldberg: that he does indeed have a phenomenal sense of fashion history and has also worked hard at inventing himself, through life obstacles, and carved his own path.

Interestingly, we see him genuinely absorbed by the recent Presidential race, by voting – and hopeful of a Democratic victory.  Even though he and his friends who include leading Democrats, are quietly disappointed by Obama being replaced by a Republican – he still compliments Melania on her outfit, on the Inauguration day.  Although, more interestingly, he compliments Obama’s character as an honourable human being.

In a sober, disclosive moment, he talks of how he has met with cruel racism – including a dismissive slander on his success as a young, attractive black man amongst many homosexual designers – that clearly he has slept his way to the top.  He is honest about a fashion outfit failure, a career move where he felt insecure of success and has a laugh over his school yearbook, where he claimed that his hobby was skiing – he hoots with laughter and admits that he has never had a ski on.

This is a hint that indeed he has invented his own persona, not only in his yearbook.  To be fair, he worked hard – spent years reading up on Vogue magazines, from the age of 10, from the love of its contents.  In one of his first jobs, he was the receptionist at Andy Warhol’s “Interview” magazine – but with a difference.  Someone else comments that his predecessors were debutantes who looked glamorous but never did anything as definite and useful as answer the phone – whereas Andre did.

As a witness to a fascinating period in clothes design – he literally had a front row seat, at shows – he has a great deal to say.  He was shocked by living through violent times for his people group, but rose above it by being so excellent in his field of expertise that he had to be employed and acknowledged.  What would be fascinating would be to give him a chunk of space within the documentary to look at what is happening in fashion today, and how that reflects society.  In other words, to let the expert speak, from the wisdom of his life’s work and experience.  Admittedly, that would be a whole other one hour TV special.

Why the title “The gospel according to Andre?”  Right at the start, we are introduced to a woman preacher, and at the end, we hear her preach a fiery sermon which Andre ecstatically compliments her on, as being something his grandmother would have appreciated.  It becomes clear that he is a church attender, and in fact the strictness of his upbringing have somehow followed him through the excesses of the fashion world in the 1980s, emerging largely unscathed.  He also mentions how fashion and wearing one’s Sunday best was very important to African-Americans in the 1950s/60s, in the midst of constant humiliations and namecalling by the white community.  It was a mixture of religion and self-expression – and joy.

Verdict: yes, it is worth watching this documentary, because of the subject interviewed.  But watch other interviews with Andre.  And prepare to see that this film may not be the best documentary format.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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