Film Review: Susanne Bartsch: On Top

Documentary profile of a New York nightlife legend introduces a fascinating, ultra-glamorous survivor but could have used a tad more clarity.
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For those who lived in New York, before and during the AIDS crisis, the contrast in city life couldn’t have been more severe. Of course, it hit the gay population the hardest then, and it was certainly something to wrap one’s head round, having just experienced such incredible post-Stonewall Liberation hedonistic joy and freedom, when every day was some kind of party you could just invent for yourself, and sex, or romance if you prefer, and all manner of barely imagined adventure lay seemingly just around every corner.

By the 1980s the feverish thumping of discos, not to mention libidos, was muffled if not totally silenced, with each dreaded day bringing the grim news of one more untimely death or someone else you personally knew contracting the disease. New Yorkers are hardy souls—they have to be—and we became almost inured to our town’s gloomy metamorphosis into the biggest No Fun Zone in the world.

However, into the breach came Susanne Bartsch, an outrageous Swiss fashionista, who arrived in Manhattan on Valentine’s Day 1981 and suddenly perked things up with a series of events that recaptured the old party spirit and were populated by hordes of exravagantly bedizened creatures of the night, their exact gender often enigmatic, to say the least. The fun, one supposes, really began at the wondrous, mostly Anglophile boutique she opened in Soho, featuring the most avant garde designers of the day—Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Jones—as well as a slew of talented newomers, like the Johns Galliano and Flett, Leigh Bowery, BodyMap, and young talents she introduced such as Alpana Bawa, Zaldy and Michael Leva. (I bought a draped wool Flett suit there, which still can be worn today and turn heads.)

Through it all, she remained a steadfast friend to the gay community, raising millions of dollars for AIDS benefits, like her now legendary Love Balls, where voguing first crossed over into the mainstream from its Harlem roots—as well as a small army of nonconformist, gender-bending club kids who considered her their spiritual mother, then and now. Her endeavors are captured in the documentary Susanne Bartsch: On Top by Anthony&Alex. But if you’re looking for a strict, biographical, point by point delineation of her life and times, forget it. At the outset of the recent Vivienne Westwood doc, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, that designer was heard to cry that she was infinitrly bored by the prospect of the film telling her story in traditional, torturous detail. Too bad, that’s pretty much what she got, but Susanne Bartsch: On Top manages to thoroughly demolish those conventions Westwood railed against. The approach, while admittedly daring, leaves the game viewer, although certainly dazzled by much of the footage, rather wanting more than Bartsch verbalizing the arc of her life and ambitions, yes, but in a distorted layered and overlapping soundtrack that, intentionally, is not always decipherable.

We do hear about her anxieties over every big event she throws, paranoiacally imagining that no one will come and eternally driven by the need to top the last one. Her personal life is touched upon, as well, with her tradition-smashing wedding to former husband, diminutive muscle-bound gym entrepreneur, David Barton—imagine Mini-Me morphed with Steve Reeves. He, an ingratiatingly affable presence in the film, wore a booty-exposing thong, while she walked down the aisle in a veil that was really a large, body-encasing synthetic egg. Their now-grown son is interviewed, and he comes across as amazingly well-adjusted, raised in that Bohemian Ground Zero, the Chelsea Hotel, and nurtured by his parents’ wildly unconventional coterie.

Indeed, there’s a lengthy passage which Bartsch generously gives over to her “children,” and you can well understand their undying devotion to her, whether employed by her or not. Often bullied and worse in their pre-New York hometowns, she provided them all with a safe haven and sustenance at a time, unlike now when parents are manfully struggling to deal with their kids’ vaying degrees of queerness and gender morphing as normal behavior. More celebrated personalities like RuPaul, Amanda Lepore, Kenny Kenny and journalist Michael Musto also offer their interviewed insight but, when all’s said and dished, no one outshines Bartsch, who is herself a work of art. Well into her 60s, with a still slamming body she has no compunction about reveaing, whether in a band-aid-sized mourning bikini at the funeral of New York Times paparazzo Bill Cunningham, or in this film, casually exposing a flawless pair of creamy breasts while donning an ensemble in which to attend a jaw-dropping 2015 Fashion Institute Technology museum retrospective of her various looks. You come away with the feeling that this singular all-purpose Super Everywoman, adept at everything fom making an entrance sure to slay and wipe out the memory of all others to being a home fixer-upper, with hammer and nails instead of a fan or cigarette holder in her hand, is really her own, greatest living work of art.