film review: The September Issue (2009)

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the september issueSince this is a documentary as opposed to a feature film I thought I’d try to bash this review out quickly, no need to think about the characters or cinematography or anything… somehow I still managed to waffle on and on… oh well!

Usually I don’t bother with much of a synopsis but I don’t know if many people would have heard of the film so… basically, the September 2007 issue of American Vogue was the biggest ever issue of a monthly magazine. Physically biggest that is, it was 840 pages and weighed in at over 5 pounds, smallish baby but a big magazine. The September Issue is a feature length documentary looking at the making of that issue. There are a variety of bit players but the focus is really on the two big wigs – Anna Wintour, Editor-in-chief, and Grace Coddington, Creative Director. If you’re wondering what makes this interesting, I really should mention… Anna Wintour is widely presumed to be the inspiration for Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (played by Meryl Streep in the film adaptation). And if you haven’t read that book or seen that film then… let’s just say, she wasn’t very nice.

The camera crew on this film seems to have all access to Wintour so I can only assume that everything in it passed through her hands first. It’s not that I particularly believe that Ms. Wintour is the monster that her former assistant implied she was in her novel; at the very least she seems to have a sense of humour, having turned up at an advance screening of the film dressed head to toe in Prada. But even if she is a monster she’s still a person and there’s pride at stake here. She has been at the top of the game for that last 21 years, she’s obviously doing something right so she wants people to know about it. And if she can make herself appear more human in the process, all’s good.

Anyway, you could speculate that ego was the driving force behind this film but personally I think that this film was more about money and keeping the Vogue story alive… She saw an opportunity to maximise the free publicity the film created and went for it. I’d never read Vogue before The Devil Wears Prada and I’d never heard of Anna Wintour. It’s not that I’m not interested in fashion, I’d know models and designers, I watched Fashion Television when I was younger and I love Project Runway now but I’d never paid much attention to the business end of it and this is obviously where the magazines come into play. Essentially, after The Devil Wears Prada, Vogue was brought to a much wider audience and people like me became a potential readers. Unfortunately for Vogue I still don’t like paying for magazines but cast the net wider and you’ve got me with this film.

I should get on with talking about the film though. It wasn’t entirely what I expected. With the view I had of Ms. Wintour I had rather thought that the film would focus on her. She’s been smarter than that. Her control of the magazine and her influence on fashion in general is absolutely highlighted but it’s not the overiding story. It has been tempered by Grace Coddington’s involvement, a woman who Anna Wintour describes as a “genius” and possibly the only person who doesn’t really care if she annoys Anna. Perhaps Ms. Wintour isn’t the ice queen we have been led to believe.

It all depends on how calculated you think the film is. It does some great PR work really. It makes Ms. Wintour seem more human, it shows us a variety of interesting characters in the fashion and it makes the magazine seem more accessible. It also showcases the stunning photos that go into the magazine and firmly places Vogue at the top of the pile when it comes to fashion magazines. Where Ugly Betty talks about competing with the other magazines and spying on them, trying to find out what they are up to, The September Issue does mention them at all. Vogue would have us believe that there is only one fashion magazine worth reading. Or rather looking at, we never actually see anything about the articles.

I enjoyed it as a film but part of why I enjoyed it was that you could look at it as a PR exercise, it made it more interesting. If I leave that aside I can’t help but think that there were so many stories left untold. We only really saw a quick glimpse at the making of 4 editorial narratives. I would have liked to see either more detail about those shoots or just more in general. Perhaps more about AndrĂ© Leon Talley, he seemed like good fun. Or more about the normal staff… or the photographers. This really would have a made a great mini-series but as it is, it is merely a quick peek into what is undoubtedly a different world altogether.


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