Arts

doc talk | Peter keough

Style is substance in ‘The Gospel According to André’

André Leon Talley in the documentary “The Gospel According to André,” directed by Kate Novack.
Magnolia Pictures
André Leon Talley in the documentary “The Gospel According to André,” directed by Kate Novack.

Kate Novack’s slick and exhilarating “The Gospel According to André,” a documentary about legendary African-American fashion critic and magazine editor André Leon Talley, unfolds, appropriately enough, like the pages of a fashion magazine.

Montages of fabulous clothes, supermodels strutting along Parisian runways, snapshots of the fleshpots of New York, profiles of prominent figures in the fashion field, and the occasional foray into a serious political or social subject fill its frames. But it is all held together by the subject’s oversize (Talley is a hefty 6-foot-6), nattily attired presence, his irrepressible, insouciant wit, and his extraordinary life, which Novack divides into three chapters. 

The first chapter, the seminal and substantive “Sunday Best,” traces Talley’s origins. Born in 1949, he grew up in Jim Crow-era Durham, N.C., and was raised by his grandmother, who kept him in a blissful domestic bubble which Talley likens to the household described in Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”  

Advertisement

The biggest event of the week was going to church on Sunday, where everyone wore their best outfits, initiating Talley’s interest in fashion. It was further expanded by his discovery of Vogue magazine and was undiminished when racist Duke students pelted him with rocks as he visited the university library for the latest issue.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In the second chapter, “The Debutante,” Talley breaks out of the cocoon of Durham and finds his calling first at Brown University and then in New York, where he arrives in the 1970s — “The last time there was true style” in the city, he says. It’s where he made his first splash as a couture critic and social scene-maker.  

The third chapter, “Black Superhero,” finds Talley an established, self-made icon. It catches him at his most charismatic and wittiest, and gingerly returns to the issue of racism. Talley relates instances when he’s been hurt by ignorant remarks by supposedly sophisticated people, but the trauma emerges most clearly over the course of the 2016 election. Showing great anxiety in the days leading up to the vote, he’s shattered by the outcome. To console himself, he gazes at a 2009 Vogue with Michelle Obama on the cover and says he wishes his grandmother had lived to see it. 

Nonetheless, his professionalism prevails. Invited to do a podcast covering the Trump inauguration, he acknowledges, despite knowing that he will probably be castigated for saying it, that he really liked Melania’s dress. He goes on to describe the garment in his signature sassy and elegant prose. 

It might be worth noting that many of Talley’s acquaintances and inspirations mentioned in the film have been the subjects of their own movies, reflecting filmmakers’ attraction to that world. 

Advertisement

Diana Vreeland, formidable editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, was profiled in “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” (2011). She made the young Talley her assistant in a Metropolitan Art Museum show she curated when he first arrived in New York and was an early mentor.

Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, featured in “The September Issue” (2009), assigned Talley to the magazine’s Paris desk, making him one of the first African-Americans to hold a position of power and influence in that fashion capital. He there became friendly with and wrote about luminaries such as Yves St. Laurent, the subject of too many documentaries and features to mention.

Perhaps film’s fascination with fashion is due to the kinship between the two industries: They are both popular, ephemeral, but at their greatest, can produce art and artists that are profound and endure. As Talley says, “Fashion is fleeting, but style remains.”


The Gospel According to André

Directed by Kate Novack. Opens June 1 at Kendall Square. 94 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic and suggestive content). 

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.