Sometimes a documentary doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. It’s got access to all of the important people, who come through as their most maximal selves. It’s got a good story to tell and a life to unpack and tons of old photographs and miles of archival footage to delight, intrigue and astound. If you’ve got all of that and your documentary is called “Halston,” you don’t need anything else. And yet for reasons unfathomable to me, the people who made this movie don’t trust what they’ve got: the tale of one of the crucial fashion imaginations in Roy Halston Frowick, who went, titanically, by that middle name.
They don’t trust the images and interviews animating this thing. They feel compelled to be smart or maybe just ponderously playful about it. So Frédéric Tcheng’s movie opens the way a Raymond Chandler novel might, with an insinuation of noir, except “Halston” starts in some kind of editing room, in which video players are swallowing cassettes and the actor and writer Tavi Gevinson has to do a lot of lurking and creaking as both the narrator and, what, a production-assistant private detective? Somebody erased Halston’s precious video archive, and the movie wants to finger the culprit.
These early scenes are meant to conjure an air of 1980-something corporate ruthlessness and dour nostalgia (“It was morning again in America,” Gevinson says on two different occasions, from a script Tcheng wrote). But who cares about morning. Show me some evening gowns! “Halston” is a juicy business-culture story, not a film noir. It’s how about this ambitious, soap-opera handsome, emotionally opaque man went from Iowan to New Yorker, from serf at Bergdorf Goodman to Merlin of American fashion to shuttlecock in corporate-takeover badminton.
He made “hot pants” a thing in the 1960s and Ultrasuede shirt dresses a thing in the ’70s. His innovation of crafting dresses from a single piece of fabric — cutting along the bias — was basically a biblical miracle. (Women were completely naked under their Halstons. The man had, we’re told, “hands of gold.” And the patterns looked “like a Cuisinart blade.”) A Halston fashion show was a theatrical event that included, with aberrant nonchalance for the times, black models. Liza Minnelli was — and remains — a true-blue bestie. Both the designer and the brand became essential to ideas of attire in the ’70s and early ’80s. (The company made uniforms for the Girl Scouts, the folks at Avis, and the American athletes of the ’76 Olympics; he cut a deal to glamorize the average woman for J.C. Penney, making him a granddaddy of the mass-market fashion collaboration.)
Even through the Studio 54 era and the drug-assisted (or drug-induced) workaholism; even though, as the film rewinds to assert, Halston could be a tyrant, things were humming. But then big business — or rather really big business — entered in 1983 and had some concerns. The company’s new corporate parent, Esmark, scrutinized the budgets, and the exorbitant old days seemed doomed. The film details power struggles and ego trips and culture clashes. And the folks gathered here to do the enumerating — his assistants, his pals, one of his boyfriends, the models, the executives, his niece, a movingly protective Minnelli, the dude who erased the tapes — paint such a vivid picture of the atmosphere around Halston, the man and the industry, that you almost don’t mind that Halston himself remains elusive.
That’s partly a matter of his indirect participation (he died in 1990, at 57, of AIDS) and because he was as grand a fortress as his buddy Andy Warhol. He’s the mystery the film is trying to solve but can’t. All of that stuff with Gevinson, whose years as a young fashion blogger entitle her to do more here than Tcheng’s droning, seems amateurishly literal. And that’s strange for Tcheng, who’s directed or co-directed good fashion films, about Diana Vreeland and Christian Dior. He’s reaching here.
And yet I liked the deluge of visual information and personalities. The pictures, footage, biography, news and gossip are the opposite of a Halston dress — unruly, busy, fussed over. But they come at you with an energy that feels substantial. Knowing what to do with all of that material is its own kind of intelligence. Why overthink it? Or: why show us what you’ve overthought?