The fascinating story of Roy Halston, the iconic designer who defined 1970s fashion in America, is patchily recounted in “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston.” In sartorial terms, the fabric is to die for, but helmer Whitney Sudler-Smith’s docu follows a banal pattern, while the finishing lacks finesse. Nevertheless, given the popularity of similar fashion-themed docus, pic should do all right in boutique distribution, and better still when it’s ready to wear on ancillary.
As per the hokey subtitle, helmer and onscreen guide Sudler-Smith structures the docu as if it were a mystery being worked out piecemeal, interview by interview. Happy to let the seams show, particularly the informal moments interviewees might have expected to be edited out, Sudler-Smith doesn’t disguise the fact that he hits a brick wall in a few instances, as when he fails to obtain access to Halston’s onetime muse, jewelry designer Elsa Peretti.
Nevertheless, he scores a coup by getting several big names to open up on camera, such as Liza Minelli, who gushes endearingly if somewhat vapidly about how Halston was her best friend, while former Halston model Anjelica Huston provides a more detached but still affectionate perspective. American Vogue’s editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley, barely disguises his disdain for Sudler-Smith’s skimpy knowledge of fashion, but graciously explains why Halston’s designs were so groundbreaking and skillfully made. Fashion writer Cathy Horyn also chips in intelligently on context.
Others — including former Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello, drag artiste Ming Vauze and photographer Chris Makos — obligingly dish some dirt about Halston’s lavish lifestyle of drugs, sex and disco without ever quite going into the sordid, juicy details some auds might crave. All in all, the pic paints a compelling if sadly all-too-familiar portrait of a gifted artist victimized by his own hubristic greed, whose name was everywhere even after he lost the rights to it. Nevertheless, the man himself remains something of an elusive figure here, perhaps because so few wanted to speak ill of the dead.
Sudler-Smith has an irritating habit of dragging in interviewees who have almost nothing to do with the subject, and isn’t really interesting enough as an onscreen presence to justify the amount of face time he’s allotted, but at least he had the smarts to hire a crack team of archival researchers. In this respect, “Ultrasuede” reps an embarrassment of riches, offering access to the elegant realm of high fashion as well as the bacchanalian excess of Studio 54. Editor John Paul Horstmann deserves kudos for expertly weaving together interview material and illustrative clips, as does music supervisor Thomas Golubic for getting rights to key disco tracks that set the party swinging.