A daring combination of narrative documentary and artful flourishes, this is an exploration of the life of iconic designer Lee Alexander McQueen, the indelible British fashion figure who took his own life at age 40 in 2010. McQueen has echoes of other tragic public figure docs like Asif Kapada’s Amy (2015) or Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017), but the boldly striking visual approach of director Ian Bonhôte and writer-codirector Peter Ettedgui offers an unusually evocative portrait that’s both coherent and, quite simply, beautiful.
Lee McQueen was born in East London to a working class family that always supported his artistic leanings. He said that he knew he was gay at 6 years old, and came out to his family at 18. After studying tailoring, he wormed his way into a Saville Row apprenticeship and studied at Central Saint Martins. His graduation collection caught the eye of top stylist Isabella Blow, who became his great friend and convinced him to use his middle name Alexander as his brand. A bold designer who provoked audiences at his shows, Lee was hired by Givenchy in Paris and strained against the firm’s rigid structure. But he also continued to shock and delight the world with his own work, and later found more freedom working with Tom Ford at Gucci. Over the years, his fame brought other issues, including body consciousness, addictions and loneliness. And these things contributed to the depression that, at the peak of his success, drove him to suicide a week after the death of his mother.
The film traces his story chronologically, using various TV interviews with Lee to fill the screen with his personality. Each of the documentary’s chapters hinges around a momentous show, kicking off with 1995’s Highland Rape, which the press completely misunderstood. In 2001, the Voss show was a layered and rather freaky exploration of perspective and expectation. La Damme Bleu in 2008 was a profoundly moving tribute to Isabella. And his stunning final show, Plato’s Atlantis, was so innovative that it was clear he was only getting started. These sequences are accompanied by home movies, snapshots, news reports and comments from his friends, family and colleagues to provide some vivid perspective. This means that the film remains powerfully riveting as it soars through the astonishing artistry and also as it dips into the darker depths.
An intimacy infuses everything on-screen, mainly because the people speaking loved him so much, and the footage often features him behind the scenes, revealing himself out of the limelight. This means that there’s quite a lot of raucous humour along the way, which helps balance out the wrenchingly sad trajectory of his life. One of the filmmakers’ bolder touches was to punctuate the film with a series of themed skulls (created by his designer nephew Gary James McQueen). These feel somewhat random at the start, but by the end become strongly meaningful. And the film also features a gorgeous score by Lee’s frequent collaborator Michael Nyman, including some of his most indelible tunes. In other words, McQueen is a celebration of the man and his world-changing work, and also a yearning look at what might have been.