As I sit here in my blue jeans and Catholic University sweatshirt, really as about as glamorous as I ever get, I can’t help but wonder how in the world I ended up reviewing a documentary about the inner workings of U.S. Vogue.
For anyone who doesn’t know, The September Issue is a behind-the-scenes look at all the work that goes into producing the magazine’s biggest annual issue, which clocks in at a rather amazing 800+ pages, and its stars are Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington. And though it could have easily turned into a vanity piece designed to refute the fictionalized portrait of Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada, it’s instead an engaging portrait of the creative process.
Hit the jump for a full review of the double-disc DVD release of The September Issue.
Given how completely vacuous the world of high fashion most often is, it’s easy to forget how much work goes into it (though certainly many – me among them – wish these talented people would use their considerable passion for something more productive.) And the real joy of R.J. Cutler’s documentary comes in watching these strong personalities emerge as the pivotal annual issue of Vogue is put together.
Rather than present this as a traditional, talking heads style documentary, Cutler wisely lets his camera flow freely through the office, giving this a genuine energy. At the magazine and in the movie, it all begins and ends with Wintour (or, as U.S. Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley rather disturbingly calls her, “Miss Wintour” – it just made me shudder a la Driving Miss Daisy.) How much time you have for The September Issue will rest largely on how much you like her, since she dominates just about every frame of this.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of my personality, but I ended up growing to like her quite a bit. I’ve never had much time for bosses who tried to sugar coat things – something of which you could never accuse Wintour. She can genuinely kill with a smile, but also gets directly involved in the careers of young designers in whom she believes. If she threw coffee in the face of an intern or something else really atrocious, Cutler’s camera didn’t capture it (and I seriously doubt she would be stupid enough to do that on camera.)
After thankfully brisk biographical intros to Wintour and Coddington, the movie quickly gets into a behind-the-scenes look at compiling the titular issue, and this is at its most interesting when Wintour and Coddington clash about just what will appear in between all the ads for dresses that cost way more than I pay per year in rent. Their professional and personal relationship, which has developed over many years, is fascinating, vacillating between genuine respect and rivalry, with Coddington pushing for more and more lavish shoots and Wintour often dismissing all her hard work, sometimes with only a cursory glance.
The real accomplishment of Cutler’s movie just might be showing that, behind all its empty glamour, there is not only a lot of hard work going on here, but some real artistry too. He lets it slowly develop, but when you see the finished product, especially in Coddington’s grand jazz-era shoot that anchors the issue, it’s hard not to be impressed. And this being fashion, there’s plenty of campy humor too, especially at the expense of cover girl Sienna Miller, whose hair and teeth take a beating from Wintour.
As far as extras, they certainly didn’t hold back, but it’s the very definition of overkill. It has deleted scenes which, if you actually watch them all (as I dutifully did), run as long as the movie itself, but how many times can you really watch Wintour talk about fabric with a designer? Buried in all this are two genuine gems, Wintour speaking at the funeral of her former assistant, Isabella Blow, who committed suicide (and not, in case you’re wondering, while she was in Wintour’s employ), and Talley addressing the graduation ceremony of a NYC beauty academy, which appears to genuinely move him.
The bottom line: Even if you’re a jeans-and-t-shirt guy like me, there’s still plenty to like in R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue.