All that glitters — or sparkles, or goes swish — is Gospel in Kate Novack’s intimate, absorbing portrait of legendary fashion editor André Leon Talley. And though it’s rich in runway footage and high-end friends (Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and Valentino Garavani among them), the movie also draws sharp focus to Talley’s roots in the segregated Jim Crow South and the sometimes subtler biases he faced as a gay black man in an industry not exactly famed for kindness or inclusion. As that thread carries through, from his reckoning with certain ugly incidents in his past to his personal relationship with the Obamas, the movie gains heft that this gossamer (cat)walk through his glamorous life might otherwise miss.
Born in 1949 in Washington, D.C., the grandson of a sharecropper, Talley was raised mostly by his beloved grandmother in Durham, North Carolina. A French Literature major who physically towered over most of his classmates, he went on to earn his Master’s in the same subject at Brown and escaped to New York as soon as he could, working the reception desk at Andy Warhol’s legendary Factory and forming an influential friendship with Vogue editrix Diana Vreeland. (Novack, whose previous documentaries include studies of the New York Times and haute-cuisine temple Le Cirque, makes smart use of a trove of vintage clips here, from the pageantry of Sunday-church dressing in the 1960s to the decadent heights of Studio 54.)
A devoted student of history, Talley quickly became famous in the demimondes of New York and Paris and Milan not just for the elegant figure he cut but the deeply knowledgeable, wildly flamboyant pronouncements he made — what Jacobs fondly calls “a fabulous insanity.” Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am goes a step further, calling him “the Nelson Mandela of couture, the Kofi Anan of what you got on.” But the subject himself perhaps puts it best: “I don’t live for fashion. I live for beauty and style. Fashion is fleeting, style remains.” B+