Sydney Film Festival Review: McQueen (UK, 2018) is a heart-breaking work of staggering genius

Fashion designer (Lee) Alexander McQueen was a true artist. He would say, “If you want to know me, look at my work.” The documentary, McQueen captures some of his enigma by looking behind-the-scenes at his extraordinary talent and story. While you get some sense of what this artistic genius was like you also get the feeling that some things will be unknowable.

McQueen left school at the age of 16 to become an apprentice tailor on Savile Row. He would go on to study at St Martin’s College Of Art & Design. His ascent in the fashion world was quite a swift one, so it’s intriguing to see that his first collection was made using a combination of found objects and materials he purchased using unemployment benefits. He found a great champion in Isabella Blow, but their friendship was sometimes a tempestuous one, as we learn here.

This documentary is directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui. It is lovingly assembled from candid home movies, photographs and news footage as well as new interviews with individuals from McQueen’s inner circle, including his close family and friends. This is a truthful story and not a hagiography because it does delve into the darker aspects of McQueen’s tale. There’s his drug abuse; the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his brother-in-law and his HIV positive status.

The audience are treated to some interesting little revelations along the way. McQueen’s tuition was funded by his aunt. His family members would make sandwiches and sausage rolls for the backstage areas of his shows. It’s also fascinating to see McQueen’s creativity in action. His shows were more like theatrical pieces or performance art then your stock-standard fashion parade. He prided himself on being a provocateur and wanted people to walk away having felt something. This would have him lauded in some circles and branded a misogynist who made unwearable outfits in others. No one can deny that McQueen did excellent work at Givenchy and in his own unique designs.

This film is divided into six chapters and chronicles McQueen’s evolution as an artist. These sections are signposted with the elaborately-designed McQueen skulls that are also animated with additional flourishes. As the film continues these titles become reflective of his descent into self-destruction and his deteriorating mental health. You can see the pressure writ large on McQueen. He begins in the industry as a happy and plump lad but by the end he is a shadow and waifish version of his former self. It is obvious the money, fame and plaudits did not bring him joy. He would tragically take his own life on the eve of his mother’s funeral aged just 40. This is especially timely at present when we consider the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

McQueen is a must-see film for anyone interested in creativity, design and fashion. There is no denying this maverick’s profound influence. This documentary feels like a disarmingly honest tribute to this great man. It doesn’t descend into the realms of tabloid shlock but instead shows the rags-to-riches tale along with the eye-catching aesthetics and the difficult and complex chapters others might have glossed over in order to keep up appearances. There is a lot here to meet the eyes.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

McQueen screened as part of Sydney Film Festival and an encore screening has been added. For more information head HERE.