Telling a story about an adored public figure isn’t easy. Are you required to say something new about their work, to focus a new lens on a career that has already been closely examined by legions upon legions of followers? Or is it enough to just present the fruits of their efforts as they were, alongside a host of cheery aphorisms about their kindness and generosity? What responsibility do we have to the creators we love?
This year has already seen the release of several documentaries of the second variety, including this summer’s megahits Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG. Now, The Times of Bill Cunningham (playing this week at the New York Film Festival), joins that group. Mark Bozek‘s portrait of the legendary New York Times fashion photographer is filled to the brim with charming anecdotes from and about its subject. It is the definition of a hagiography, and it winds up being far blander than its fascinating subject deserves.
Bozek draws largely from a 1994 interview that he conducted with Cunningham, a short conversation that was meant to run 10 minutes but instead lasted literally until the tape ran out. These clips of Cunningham are wide-ranging and diverse in tone. At one point, he talks about the many 1950s Hollywood superstars that he lived alongside in his home at Carnegie Studios. At another, he despairs at the lack of true style icons in modern Hollywood. Cunningham is a delightful presence, blindingly charming and quietly caustic in equal doses. Unfortunately, the documentary barely breaks the surface of his vibrant psychology. Bozek’s interview ran for hours, but the documentary is a brisk and superficial 72 minutes.
The most engaging portions of the film are the ones that delve into its subject’s outlook on the world, instead of simply settling for charming mythologizing. A segment on his consistent coverage of the New York Gay Pride Parade is a highlight, tiptoeing delicately around the complicated issue of Cunningham’s own sexuality while still extracting insight from him on his close relationship to the gay community. He breaks down into tears in a frank discussion of the AIDS crisis and his close friends who struggled with the disease. It’s a wrenchingly human moment in the middle of this mostly detached look at a shy, withdrawn figure, and one that makes you grateful Bozek held onto his tapes.
But for a doc so focused on what Cunningham brought to the world, The Times of Bill Cunningham is oddly determined to let him be the only voice heard. There are no other interviews spotlighted, and only an unnecessary voiceover narration from Sarah Jessica Parker breaks up the talking-head segments with Cunningham himself. There’s nothing wrong with letting a documentary’s subject speak for himself, but the finished project ends up feeling almost anemic, totally lacking any meaningful contribution from the people that Cunningham had an impact on. The audience is simply told in voiceover about his relationships. Some well-placed interviews with a few contemporaries could have added a helpful extra layer.
Instead, Bozek fills his film with hundreds and hundreds of Cunningham’s photographs. Some of these from before the photographer’s career at the Times have never been seen before. These images are the true heart of the documentary, ranging from candid shots of New Yorkers on the streets of their city to carefully posed images of stunningly dressed movie stars. Cunningham became a classic New York figure, whizzing through the streets in his distinctive blue coat on one of his many cheap bicycles. His photographs lit up the pages of the stodgy, classically composed New York Times. It’s a pity that a documentary that bears his name lacks the same youthful zest that defined his best work.