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Review: The September Issue

An eye-opening, highly satisfying fashion documentary
By SHAULA CLARK  |  September 9, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

 

The September Issue | Directed By RJ Cutler | With Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington | A&E Indiefilms | 90 minutes

Interview: RJ Cutler. By Shaula Clark.

The issue of Vogue currently crowding newsstands is the September issue, a 584-page monstrosity that's the hallowed mag's biggest production of the year. Poring over this sleek slab of sartorial majesty, you'd never suspect that mere days before the pages go to the printers, harried Vogue staffers are searching for last-minute inspiration as they redo entire photo spreads.

But watch The September Issue and a whole new reality will open up.

In 2007, director RJ Cutler and his film crew spent eight months tailing Vogue's luminaries as they stitched together that year's September tome: duking it out in edit meetings, riffling through racks of improbable frippery, jetting off to Europe. From the 320 hours of footage, Cutler has crafted an illuminating portrait of this Condé Nast juggernaut and its sphinx-like editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. At the helm of Vogue since 1988, "nuclear Wintour" is a near-mythical figure in both the publishing and the fashion industry. A reputed tyrant, she's widely thought to have been the inspiration for Miranda Priestly, the devil of The Devil Wears Prada.

The Anna Wintour of The September Issue, however, comes off as refreshingly multi-faceted. Sure, she has no problem telling her underlings their ideas are boring. But she's the editor of a magazine with 13 million readers — she's supposed to be a hard-ass. And as Cutler shows, those claws are attached to a woman who idolized her father, nurtures the career of a promising young designer, and is pained by the fact that her siblings — a low-income-housing agent, a humanitarian-aid worker, and a Guardian political editor — find her froufy fashion gig amusing.

Some have accused Cutler of being over-protective of his subject and suggested that Wintour played up her softer side for the cameras. But I suspect that, having seen Cutler's 1993 project, The War Room (a quiet, observant documentary of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos blazing Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign trail), those viewers were anticipating an acid-spewing Gorgon and are miffed at having gotten a mere frosty human instead.

Wintour's not the only star here. The spotlight also belongs to creative director Grace Coddington, a 21-year Vogue vet who's the artistic yin to Wintour's business-savvy yang, a strong-willed and soulful sparring partner.

As we wend through a labyrinth of tulle and glitter and unspeakable power and approach the closing date of the September issue, Coddington becomes a kind of underdog. Wintour starts ripping out Coddington's lovingly slaved-over photo spreads to make more room for the September cover girl, Sienna Miller, who's going to be flouncing around Rome with another photographer. Eventually, at least $50,000 worth of Coddington's creative vision is lying on the cutting-room floor. On top of that, she has to reshoot her textures spread two days before ship date. Coddington fumes, then gets a sudden brainstorm — she's going to turn the cameras on the film crew. From here, her quest to salvage her piece takes on the giddy tenor of a teen drama: the eccentric outsider pulls off some harebrained stunt to best the snobby popular girl (that'd be Wintour) and triumphs.

The September Issue is an eye-opening, highly satisfying romp. And unlike Valentino: The Last Emperor — a more insidery fashion-minded documentary that sashayed up the red carpet earlier this year — it doesn't require you to have cracked open an issue of Vogue to enjoy it.

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