There are few kinds of documentaries I dislike more than the amateur first-person film that pretends to be about a famous person (or persons) but really ends up being primarily about the self-involved director and his or her fandom (or investigative journey). The sort that begin with redundant narration from the director along the lines of, “I always wanted to make a film about…” Exceptions do occur, and I’d cite docs like “Sherman’s March” (and Ross McElwee’s other works), “Roger & Me” (and some of Michael Moore’s subsequent work) and “Gasland” as classic successes of the style. And the recent Toronto hit “Paul Williams Still Alive” proves miraculously that they can even work when the filmmaker is a pest — something that typically hurts these films.
Now “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” joins them all in rising above the irritations of this growing genre. And I was pleasantly surprised and completely delighted. The film, which consistently remains first and foremost about the ‘70s fashion designer Halston, is directed front and center by the boldly personable Whitney Sudler-Smith, and this is very obviously his feature debut. He is inquisitive yet seemingly unprepared, as addressed by many of his interviewees who tell him to do his homework, and he occasionally interrupts his celebrity guests. He also includes scenes of him talking to his mother about making the film, of him driving around in a Trans-Am because he loves the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” (relevant only by the fact it’s from the ‘70s) and of him speaking directly to the camera telling us what he’s about to do.
Disregard those minor faults, though, and we get an excellent biography of Halston as told by many of his close friends, including the wonderfully foul-mouthed and candid Liza Minnelli, people he worked with, such as then-model Angelica Huston, and other celebs of the era who might have some connection. Billy Joel and Chic’s Nile Rogers, for example, are interviewed because they referenced Halston in lyrics. Joel’s appearance is also great for a general insight about New York in the ‘70s, comparing it to Hitler’s bunker in the last days of World War II. Rogers, meanwhile, sheds some amusing light on the song “Le Freak” during a digressive section in the film focused on Studio 54 and the designer’s regularity there.
The reason Sudler-Smith isn’t a total failure in his pursuit of information and enjoyable film content is that he’s actually pretty likable — at least to the people he interviews. He’s something of a nuisance to the film and sometimes annoys people on screen for a bit, but he’s mainly a harmless guy with definite excitement about the subject, and the people he manages to talk to are also very willing to discuss and celebrate the life and legacy of Halston. I’m sure that, like we see in the “Paul Williams” doc, people are more comfortable chatting when it’s less formal and when the filmmaker is in frame with the interviewee. The film becomes a casual get-together, albeit one where most of the guests don’t get to physically interact, and that party atmosphere is appropriate to the story we’re being told.
Narratively, I'd say “Ultrasuede” comes off like a nonfiction version of Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine,” which of course was about a glam rocker rather than a fashion designer and was itself modeled somewhat on “Citizen Kane.” But the combination of the period explored and the fact that it involves a nostalgic journalist of sorts — who is told of new places to research and people to talk to by each person interviewed — allows for comparison. The only thing missing is a final appearance from Halston, who unfortunately died in 1990, for Sudler-Smith to track down in the flesh.
Then again, part of what makes the film successful might be that the central subject is not available let alone present. “Paul Williams” aside, it’s usually those films in which the filmmaker closely follows or searches for the subject — I call them stalkumentaries — that most present the directors and their docs as a total bother, to both the people on screen and the people in the audience. In part thanks to an exciting array of archival footage and photographs, compiled with the first-person stuff by veteran editor Anne Goursaud (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), and to put it in fashion-related terms, Sudler-Smith really makes it work.
“Ultrasuede: The Search for Halston” is now playing at the IFC Center in NYC and opens in Los Angles February 10. It's also available on VOD and from iTunes.
Recommended If You Like: fashion; Liza Minnelli; “Velvet Goldmine”