Streaming’s Hidden Treasures: McQueen

Image: Lionsgate

This edition of Streaming’s Hidden Treasures was featured on BBC Essex radio with Helen Scott. You can listen to it here: Skip to 1:28:00 for the Reel Time segment.

Streaming has changed the way we view films. It is a change that has been welcomed by many and sniffed at by others. Like it or not, however, Netflix, Amazon and the like play a huge part in being a film-lover today. These platforms have vast amounts to offer, some of which is sorely overlooked. Streaming’s Hidden Treasures aims to pick out quality, different and lesser-known cinema from across the internet, offering a guide to a variety of entertainment with ease and affordability.

Directors: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui

Streaming Service: Netflix

The poster for McQueen, a documentary about the life of the late fashion designer Lee ‘Alexander’ McQueen, is notably good. A gold, flower-laden skull on a black background seems the perfect evocation of the film and its subject. Striking, beautiful, and intrinsically obsessed with darkness, it mirrors McQueen’s collections and the life he lived around them. Starting with his late teens and entry into the sartorial world via working as a tailor, the film tracks the designer from this point through his acclaimed career, up until his death in 2010.

Structured in rough ‘chapters’, the different stages of McQueen’s life are framed by and named after some of his most famous runway shows. This creates a continuous tying-together of the designer’s life and art. It allows us to see his collections as a form of self-expressive art, reflecting both his position in the industry and how he felt about it. As we watch the cheeky joie de vivre Lee McQueen brought into a room, his sheer love of his craft, and his trajectory of more success combined with less happiness, this becomes an increasingly insightful and moving document.

Stories of tortured genius like this are ten a penny in the creative arts, from Amy Winehouse to Heath Ledger, and a lot of them have had their own documentary all about the tragedy of their brilliance. Whilst clearly falling into that template, McQueen manages to tell its own story. The film does not just depict a familiar rise and fall arc with McQueen in place of any other artist, but really allows the audience to glimpse his unique life and position in the fashion world.

We are made to understand a lot of his perspective on fashion from his entry into the world. A craftsman who loved physically working with materials, there is something very ’ordinary’ about McQueen’s journey to become a designer, even if his vision was anything but. What we ultimately see here is the tale of a man who never belonged in the world he revolutionised, because he was never really allowed to. McQueen does a great job of detailing how its subject at first thrived off this rejection, becoming a creative-rebel extraordinaire, before eventually succumbing to its pressures.

Like all good documentaries, this is no hagiography. The complexities and mistakes of Lee McQueen are there for us to see and, with no voiceover, his story is told by those closest to him. His sister, ex-boyfriends, and close collaborators all feature heavily. Often, the way we understand McQueen is by how he treated those around him. How that varies, from kindness and enthusiasm, to anger and betrayal, helps paint the picture of what was going on inside his head. We will never know exactly how McQueen thought and felt, but the film gives us a good outline.

For the uninitiated in the world of fashion, McQueen makes its subject pleasingly accessible. The controversy caused by what he did, the boundaries he pushed – like the blending of fashion with performance art – and the significance of different aspects of the fashion world are simply explained. It gives us a window into what he achieved, and why one man became the eye of the fashion storm and his life went in the direction it did. Like many portraits of tragic stars, we see the pressure of the media and scrutiny of critics that contribute to a person’s mental wellbeing. The exact way in which this works within the fashion industry, and how it impacted McQueen, is convincingly laid out here. Besides, even if you have no interest in the catwalk, McQueen’s own story is so human and compelling that it doesn’t really matter.

Even with all the right elements for a good documentary to be interesting, its telling still needs to grab an audience. Talking heads and archive footage can be quite dull if not well-presented, but in McQueen there is a vital, sinister energy throughout. This is largely courtesy of Michael Nyman’s magnificent score. Swelling strings and tinkling pianos abound, providing well-judged scoring for the key moments and shows in McQueen’s life. It captures the mix of beauty, melancholy and frankly frightening savagery that McQueen put into his work, and found from his life. Just like that poster.

Andrew Young