REVIEW: Halston Remains Inscrutable

The thing that separates good documentaries from great ones is that the latter discover something about their subjects that wasn’t of public domain (Three Identical Strangers comes to mind). Halston is standard stuff, framed by one of the most ill-conceived gimmicks in the history of the genre, so much so it nearly derails a compelling story about the pitfalls of greed.

The rare couturier who kept an eye on the general public when crafting his designs, Roy Halston put America on the fashion map in the early 70’s. His skill was in the cut: Halston could make a dress out of a single, continuous piece of fabric, and favored simple, straight lines. But for all his skill with the scissors, he was quick to sell his name to bigger businesses, a practice that would end up costing him dearly.

By his own testimony, Halston was not one to look back or reflect on the events that shaped him, but that’s no reason for the film to do the same. The astonishing lack of insight is partially solved towards the end of the film, but at no point we learn what made the man tick (Halston died of AIDS in 1990). Halston promoted himself 24/7, was prone to bouts of anger but also kindness, was aloof, his drug of choice was cocaine and was the first to put Iman on the catwalk. Make of that what you will.

The documentary would be a wash if it wasn’t because director Frédéric Tcheng (Dior and I) got nearly every mayor player in the designer’s life to share their experience, including Lisa Minelli, Joel Schumacher and several of the Halsonettes. Particularly thrilling is the testimony of Halston’s later-days handler, a Brooklynite with little patience for absurd expense accounts.

The film has all the characteristics of a traditional doc, but Tcheng adds an unnecessary flourish that distracts from the main narrative: An unnamed, fictitious assistant that interrupts Halston every so often to provide —I can only assume— the filmmaker’s perspective. Isn’t that what the movie is for? Three fashionable planets (out of five).

Halston is now playing at the Roxy Theatre.