It would have been interesting to see what kind of documentary The Gospel According to Andre would have turned into had it been delayed several years until after the death in January 2022 of its subject, famed fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley. The movie was originally released in 2018, and principle filming seems to have been concluded early in 2017. Having Talley’s untimely death as a natural ending to the movie would have made it not only more biographically definitive, but might have prompted its director, Kate Novack, to question the original tack of the narrative, which hints at darker matters but mostly sticks to a conventionally hagiographic approach. For sure, within the rarefied world of high fashion, Talley was something of a revolutionary, but he was also a tragic figure, an aspect that Novack mentions without actually interrogating. Only a year before he died, Talley was also the subject of a long New York Times article about his failing finances in the context of the false facade of luxury that high fashion has to maintain in order to be taken seriously.
Talley’s newsworthiness is unimpeachable: He was a tall, imposing black man, son of a Southern sharecropper and raised by his grandmother in the church, who succeeded in New York’s fashion world on his own terms and, in doing so, changed the way glossy publications like Vogue, for which he was once the creative director, addressed racial and sexual minorities that had previously been overlooked, even if both had been direct influences on fashion for years. Certainly the best parts of the film are those in which Talley himself, dressed in one of his signature mantels or gowns, speaks of this world in terms and tones both sardonic and appreciative. But because he recognizes his stature in the industry and what it gained by “allowing him in,” he’s justifiably bitter at how things turned out. Due to artistic disagreements that he characterizes as being political within Vogue in the late 90s, he left the magazine under a cloud (though remained on the masthead as an editor at large) and subsequently struggled with a freelance career and chronic health problems (the Times article deals with these struggles much more clearly than the movie does). Countless celebrity talking heads appear during the course of the movie praising Talley’s influence, including Vogue chief editor Anna Wintour, who seems to have been central to his downfall. Consequently, there’s a marked disconnect between the exuberance of the tribute and the sad place where Talley ended up that is not explained.
I suppose if Novack had focused on Talley’s memories only and eschewed the solicited testimonies, the film would have been more satisfying, though probably no more complete. He himself probably wouldn’t have wanted much more exposure of his personal life, but Talley was too important a figure—and not just in the world of fashion—to fob off with an outline structure like this. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the big literary biography, which is a shame. As a personality alone, he was nothing if not made for the big screen.
Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).
The Gospel According to Andre home page in Japanese
photo (c) Rossvack Productions LLC 2017