Kate Novack’s ode to fashion icon André Leon Talley in her flattering documentary ‘The Gospel According to André’ ventures at times into hackneyed territories that resemble something more akin to a Lifetime feature than a festival debut.
“Magazines are what you imagine life should be.” That’s the mantra that designer and director Tom Ford attributes to seemingly dictating much of the larger-than-life André Leon Talley’s seven decades on this earth. Raised in the Jim Crow South with his fiercely religious grandmother, it isn’t surprising that the André Leon Talley, towering symbol of style (whose name is just as towering as his figure) feels as though magazines are a respite from the vitriolic racism that consumed much of his life in the South. To the young André, Vogue was an escape to a world of glamour, prestige, and beauty. It was a universe that accepted him for who he was and eventually championed him to new heights of fame, fortune, and esteem.
André fought hard to escape the drudgery of backwood Carolina. From his Francophilic days at Brown University to his time at Andy Warhol’s Factory, André knew that his life existed beyond the racism of the South. As André says, “create your own universe that you respect.” It’s a belief that has seemingly propelled André for most of his life, having laid the foundation for future African Americans who wish to follow a similar path into the cloistered world of high fashion. Whether it was groundbreaking editorial work at Vogue or his stylist advice to Michelle Obama, André had done more in his lifetime than most would achieve in a dozen. And while director Kate Novack tries her best to paint an intimate and all-encompassing portrait of the fashion icon, her film frequently delves into glib diatribes that do more to elucidate everyone’s love for Mr. Talley rather than letting his own work and symbolic stature speak for itself.
But that is not to say that Ms. Novack’s film is a bad one. Quite the contrary, the director of this documentary earnestly structures her film to demonstrate the many complex layers behind the Czarist-obsessed aesthetician, taking the time to paint a picture of a beautiful, endearing, and charming man. And while that may satisfy most documentary viewers—particularly admirers of Mr. Talley—there seems to be an underlying lack of sincerity in showcasing the world of André Leon Talley. The film, while delving into the trials and tribulations of young Mr. Talley, did so in a thin veneer that seemed too frenetic to truly let it sink in with viewers. The film seldom took a breath for the audience that was still reeling from the abhorrent racism that Mr. Talley had overcome. Before viewers could even reflect on the overwhelming odds that Mr. Talley had conquered, the film had already moved onto the next accomplishment or award that the fashion guru had completed or received.
Which is too bad for Mr. Talley, who is indeed an intricate personality that deserves to be rightfully explored in all its unsavory (and savory) ups-and-downs. His life is one that is not only compelling and thought-provoking, it is one that is deeply modernist and humanist. His continued evocations on life (“success is the best revenge” is perhaps my personal favorite) and seemingly never-ending list of close celebrity friends is one that showcases a sumptuously beautiful soul who recognizes his own hang-ups as well if not better than his successes. In the end, The Gospel According to André is a fine film that does its job in providing a biographical retelling of the life and times of a deeply revered cultural figure. But alas, the complexity of the man seems to be missing, a note that will sorely be missed by Mr. Talley’s adoring fans.
The Gospel According to André premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 before hitting the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25. It is set to hit theaters April 27.