It’s entirely possible to have lived a life outside of New York, removed from the world of avant garde fashion, drag queen Vogue-ing and “club life” and to have never heard of Susanne Bartsch.
But “Susanne Bartsch: On Top” posits the seriously self-involved query, “Why would you WANT to, dahlink?”
The Swiss-born, German-accented Zsa Zsa sound-alike Bartsch is a New York institution, a club promoter/party planner who moved from post-punk London to New York in the ’80s and brought her fashion sense, gift for self-promotion and ability to conceptualize, costume and cast circus-like Baccanales which blend widely disparate (so she says) corners of culture on a single festive night.
It might be at the Copacabana or whatever nightspot is downstairs in her longtime home, the Chelsea Hotel, or at On Top at the Standard, High Line Hotel, but her notorious soirees, which spread her sense of style and yen for inclusion, have been a worldwide magnet for party-goers, “club kids” — specifically gay men — for decades.
“Her elusive gift,” The New York Times” once opined of the 60something fashion icon/promoter, “is relevance.” She might lie about that age and boast of all manner of cosmetic surgery, but she’s still totally “a thing” in a city that ground up and threw away every other vestige of the late-disco pre-AIDS club life decades ago.
The debut feature by filmmakers who have branded themselves Alex & Anthony (Opie must be looking for a new on-air co–host) uses archival news footage, 35 years of party shots and home movies as well as testimonials from friends, family and followers to argue for that “relevance” in the days leading up to a 2015 Fashion Institute of Technology retrospective of “her work.”
That would be costumes, each more outrageous than the last (several new ones a week, at her party-planning peak), decor and footage from the epic, “orgiastic” blow-outs she has thrown over the years. Alex & Anthony follow the exhibitionist Bartsch around as she fusses with makeup and hair stylists, organizes the show’s collection of her costumes and reminisces about a life on the underground culture’s cutting edge, pre-AIDS to today.
She is the “Queen of the Night,” columnist and nightlife/gay life/gossip chronicler Michael Musto enthuses. “She picked up where Andy Warhol left off.”
Bartsch preached and preaches “Use the costume to push yourself,” and the world listened. “If it’s not a statement, what’s the point?”
She lured legions to the Big City where many acolytes, self-described “personalities” and “Night Club Legends,” mostly drag queens, yearned to impress her with their costumes, to get her attention like an underground Anna Wintour.
For many, the “Bartschworld” the New York newspapers and magazines reported on represented “my chance to be myself” for the first time — openly gay, flaunting it in the most out-there costume each could come up with in Bartsch’s assorted showcases.
If America today resembles, to a large degree, a narcissistic culture of Perpetual Halloween, Bartsch was its progenitor. She popularized Vogueing and drag fashion shows years before Madonna and “Paris is Burning” discovered them. She conceived parties, immovable feasts, and swanned through them, affirming those who got in, remembering names, encouraging.
Her son Bailey notes “It’s interesting to be around Susanne when she’s playing Susanne,” but “On Top” suggests that it’s quite rare to find her otherwise. Even out of uniform, she is imperious, impatient,but supportive, recognizing her 1989 AIDS fundraiser, the Love Ball, as perhaps representing her high-water mark as a taste-maker and culture-influencer.
The film parks her at the center of a universe that was and is all about gender tolerance and inclusion, even if one doubts her claims of a “post ‘velvet rope'” party ethos.
The film gets off track a bit as her fans get into “my story” too eagerly — another piece of American culture Bartsch adapted early on as her own.
You can make the case that she narrowed the definition of “frivolous” in a self-absorption sense, and “ridiculous” in a clothing sense — the lady never got over Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” period.
And her own son declares that “her contribution (to society) is “dust in the wind,” and that she knows it.
But “On Top” is still documentary history of value, capturing a “tipping point” of gay acceptance as it happened and honoring the woman who rode, like Lady Godiva, at the head of the a glittery victory parade.
MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, sexuality
Cast: Susanne Bartsch, Michael Musto, RuPaul, Amanda LePore, Kenny Kenny, Ryan Burke
Credits:Directed by Anthony & Alex (Anthony Caronna, Alexander Smith). An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:26