“A captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest.”
I don’t think biographical documentaries get any more delightful than this. The latest unsung cultural icon to get the documentary treatment is gentle giant and “Black superhero” André Leon Talley, a true larger-than-life figure. Director Kate Novack has wisely just let Talley’s remarkable story tell itself, through a combination of interviews with the man, his friends, and his colleagues, and a period of simply following him around his daily life over 2016 and 2017. Along the way, The Gospel According to André reveals a captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest, and not afraid to examine the darker, crueler sides of fame, success, fashion, and race.
Talley is known the world over as a fashion writer with a flamboyant pen and a deeply knowledgable eye. He rose high in the ranks of Vogue magazine, at one point leading its Paris edition, and has in many ways come to represent the diverse possibilities of the fashion world. Talley is a tall, wide Black man from Durham, North Carolina, raised in a conservative household by his loving but stern grandmother. From an early age he was fascinated by accounts of the fashion world, such as John Fairchild’s novel The Fashionable Savages, and of course, the covers and contents of Vogue and its ilk. From there, his story just grows more and more awe-inspiring, as he climbed higher and higher in the fashion industry through his unique eye and captivating personality. Editor-and-chief of Vogue at the time, Diana Vreeland, took one look at the way he had assembled a vintage Hollywood costume for an exhibition and selected him to be her right-hand-man on the spot. He worked with Warhol at Interview Magazine, he befriended Karl Lagerfeld and just about every other designer and model since the early 70s with ease and charm. The film captures all this miraculous story with clever montages of clips, magazine pages, archival footage, and, best of all, long stretches where the film just lets the inimitable Talley talk.
And talk he does. This may go down as one of the best individual-focused documentaries where the individual in focus tells their own story. Unlike the recent head-in-hands bore that was Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, Novack’s film does not resort to hagiographic worship of the protagonist as if the viewers are automatically joining in from the off, but instead convinces you, remarkably quickly, that Talley is a figure worth exploring, understanding, and uplifting. The murderer’s row of stylish interviewees seem to agree: everyone from Anna Wintour to Marc Jacobs to Tom Ford to Fran Lebowitz to Whoopi Goldberg has something lovely to say about Mr. Talley, both about his work and his character – and his importance. These interviews and Novack’s framing, in a way that reminded me subtly of Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles, turns the spotlight on the societal implications of the subject’s life and work, and leans heavily into Talley’s groundbreaking achievement as a large, verbose, delightfully charming Black man who became widely beloved and respected by the usually homogeneous, cold fashion world. Though brief, the film’s revisiting of Talley’s progressive work within the pages of Vogue is utterly fascinating — I instantly made a note to look up his “Scarlett in the Hood” series from the 1990s, starring Naomi Campbell as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, which is brilliant and brave in multiple ways.
The film achieves real gravity at times, in between the celebrations. Aside from the (slightly extraneous) discussions of the 2016 election, as Novack happened to be filming during the lead-up to it and its aftermath, many of the serious aspects are deeply, movingly personal. Talley has moments of great reflection and sombre reckonings with treatment he suffered in his life, from outright racism lobbed at him from ‘dear friends’ in the fashion world, to the overarching question of whether he was so successful simply because of his talent, or possibly because he was considered an ‘exotic’ ornament to keep around for amusement. Talley himself suggests this and more heartbreaking ideas that he has had to grapple with over the course of this remarkable journey, and he deserves immense credit for his honesty and heart.
It is clear that the filmmakers, the assembled guests, his legions of fans, and the majority of the fashion world absolutely love Mr. Talley, and by the end of this film, I expect you will too. See this film as soon as possible.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 27 June)
Go to The Gospel According to Andre at the EIFF