Dazzling fashion industry documentary needs to take a step back and remove one accessory
Directed by Frédéric Tcheng
Cast: Halston, Tavi Gevinson, Liza Minnelli
“We were all impressed with your Halston dress,” sang Billy Joel in his 1978 hit “Big Shot,” his catchy takedown of a nouveau riche New York party girl. It’s a lyric that conjures a clear image some 40 years after it was penned. Few fashion designers have had as strong a pop cultural impact as American Roy Halston Frowick—better known as the single-monikered “Halston.” His sleek, ultra-glam evening wear defined the discotheque era of the late ’70s/early ’80s just as surely as cocaine, mirrorballs and Studio 54. Although they may lag behind painters, sculptors and other visual artists—all of whom have had countless movies made about their dramatic lives—fashion designers have been graced with their fair share of feature films. There have been biopics (Coco Before Chanel, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Yves Saint Laurent, Saint Laurent) documentaries (Unzipped, McQueen, Dior and I, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes, Iris) and the occasional fictional drama (Phantom Thread, Zoolander maybe?).
It’s only natural, then, that the esteemed Halston should get his shot at a hagiographic documentary, which comes to us from French-born filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng. Unsurprisingly, Tcheng also worked on the previously mentioned fashion designer documentaries Dior and I and Valentino: The Last Emperor as well as the fashion editor documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. The fashion-conscious can rest assured they’re in good hands.
The story of a poor, gay Iowa farm boy who came to the big city of Chicago and ended up designing the iconic pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s presidential inauguration is a juicy one. And Halston’s adventures in excess-filled ’70s New York are appropriately gossip-worthy. Actress Liza Minnelli, director Joel Schumacher, model Pat Cleveland and fellow fashion icon Naeem Khan are all there to dish the dirt. Halston’s need to reinvent himself as the star of an impossibly fabulous late-night fantasy filled with movie stars, musicians and models is both evident and understandable.
There’s also more than enough drama in Halston’s chaotic business life to fuel the documentary’s narrative to its end. The inevitable end of the disco era and the ushering in of the AIDS crisis more or less put a damper on Halston’s party life. A decision to license his brand to JCPenny proved a disastrous, late-in-the-game financial decision (and that $3,000-a-day cocaine habit didn’t help any).
With all this Sturm und Drang, you’d think the director would have more than enough material to last him the film’s run time. And yet Tcheng makes the somewhat regrettable decision to add in a faux film noir thread. Fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson is cast as a (fictional) secretary at the Halston archives who sorts through the film’s various historical records, photo archives and grainy VHS tapes to learn the “truth” about the designer’s downfall. She even narrates the film in the manner of a Raymond Chandler detective. The “truth” is Halston died in 1990 of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a cancer afflicting an estimated 35 percent of AIDS patients. Tcheng—perhaps longing for the considerably more salacious story of “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace”—tries to spin his story into a murder mystery. But there’s really no mystery to it. And these segments only end up distracting from what’s already a compelling narrative.
Ironically, by trying to do too much—something the minimalist Mr. Halston certainly never strove for in his clean, modern designs—Halston falls into the same trap as virtually all documentary biopics. Is it a well-produced flashback of the man’s life and times? Undoubtedly. But does it provide us any truly deep and unexpected connection to his underlying character? Probably not. For most of us, however, a brief glimpse inside the dark and glittering interior of Studio 54 as a star ducks in and the door swings shut is about the best us plebeians behind the velvet rope can hope for.