For a film about a master of minimalism, “Vidal Sassoon the Movie” trades in excess. There’s overdone praise, overdone dips into black-and-white lensing, overdone artsy geometric graphics and too much focus on producer Michael Gordon’s coffee-table book on his hairstylist idol. The tome’s layout and assemblage lend Craig Teper’s docu a nominal structure (and Gordon with pre-publication publicity), as multiple archival artifacts amply illustrate this account of the maestro’s career. But Teper buries his material in gimcrack mod trappings that trivialize rather than celebrate Sassoon’s accomplishments.
Pic waxes strongest when Sassoon talks about his childhood as a poor Jewish kid in London’s East End, the camera following him through key locations of his youth: the orphanage where he was sent after his father split; the synagogue where he sang in the choir; the streets where he fought against Oswald Mosley and his followers in their postwar fascist rallies.
Sassoon’s career resulted not from personal obsession (his passion was architecture) but from his mother’s prophetic dream, which inspired her to apprentice him to a hairdresser. Next, in time-honored biodoc tradition, his perfectionism made his early working years a study in frustration as he searched for his signature style. Once he found it, as numerous interviewees explain, it revolutionized hairdressing, fashion and the look of the ’60s, as well as the way women viewed themselves. A lovely verbal pas de deux pairs Sassoon and seminal designer Mary Quant (one of the first to sport a Sassoon five-point cut) enthusiastically recollecting the swinging ’60s.
But such spontaneity is rare. More typically, parades of Sassoon employees and colleagues, each artificially posed against a dead white wall (presumably in homage to the famous black-and-white photos of his distinctive cuts), heap generalized plaudits upon their deity. Never can they be seen at work (or even at ease), and never are they allowed to illustrate what they are talking about with, say, a practice wig and a pair of scissors.
Pic sinks lowest when it attempts to correlate Sassoon’s creations with the ongoing reinvention of form that surrounded him. Instead of actually tracing similarities between Sassoon’s geometric tendencies and his contemporaneous architecture, Teper throws in an indifferent shot of the Guggenheim that suggests the dreaded beehive more than it suggests any sassy Sassoon cut.
Sassoon’s global success and attendant celebrity spawned a treasure trove of imagery; his unforgettable “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good” ads, the daily TV show he co-hosted with his wife, and his guest appearances demonstrating exercise routines are all excerpted here. But Teper lacks the necessary distance from his subject to give his material shape and coherence. The helmer’s own attempts to visually trumpet Sassoon’s greatness with special effects, far from arising organically from his subject’s accomplishments, unfold in a void as Sassoon strides, heroically undistorted, through a sea of computer-fudged faces.