Originally Reviewed – 4/25/2011
As I’ve said in a number of different reviews, New York is a city comprised of characters. From the bag lady on the 6 train to the Upper West Side sophisticate, from the Brooklyn based hipster to the androgynous fella who jogs in tights, a fishnet top and a crack hugging thong, the City That Never Sleeps is also the City That Never Ceases To Surprise. While some of these characters are often there to shock, appall or simply annoy, there are a few standouts that show the true color of the city whilst melding into the background. Seldom seen but uniquely New York, these characters buzz around the ether, making little moments of magic wherever they happen to go. The titular subject of a brand new documentary by first time director Richard Press, Bill Cunningham is one of those outliers, a camera wielding, picture snapping man of joy whose story is inspirational, poignant and uplifting all at the same time.
For those of you don’t know, Bill Cunningham is an 85 year old fashion photographer who spends his days perched on the street corners of New York City’s more fashionable areas, snapping pictures of random people whose fashion sense catches his meticulous eye. Just don’t expect to get a pic in his column if you’re rocking an H&M sweater and a pair of Levi’s jeans. The more expressive the better and whatever Bill happens to capture on a given day ends up in his weekly column in the New York Times. While this may seem a mundane subject for a documentary, Mr. Cunningham is anything but. Despite being one of the most influential photographers in all of fashion, Bill lives an austere life; he lives in a tiny studio, rides his ancient Schwinn bicycle and spends almost no money on himself. The man’s sole purpose is the documenting of the fashion created by everyday people and that single minded focus is what makes him brilliant. The man is also a downright sweetheart, constantly smiling, laughing and finding pleasure in the very act of living, even when a potential subject tells him to “f himself”.
The film reflects the quiet joy of its subject, firstly following Bill through his daily activities and standard routines. The doc does a sublime job of giving the Bill room to breathe, in turn giving the audience an unobstructed view of the artist at work. The film follows him from the sidewalk to the runway, fashion events and even to the streets of Paris, where he gives an acceptance speech for the esteemed Order of Arts and Letters. Up to this point, Bill comes off as a kooky yet earnest genius: he jokes with the filmmakers, obsesses over layouts and goes about this day with his signature smile intact. Here, however, is where you first see the emotion behind the magic and the moment of his acceptance speech is easily one of the most emotionally cutting moments I’ve seen in a doc this year. The filmmakers also deserve high praise for the respect given to their subject. At several points in the film, you can tell they back off from the cutting questions, understanding that it’s not that he doesn’t have the answers but has the right to withhold if need be. The result is an even keeled and positive film that never becomes too invasive or mean spirited.
As you go through the film, you realize it’s aptly named. Bill Cunningham is more than just an old guy on a bike snapping photos of weirdos; he’s a boro onto himself, an island of single sighted purpose finding joy in his photos and fulfillment in his work despite the sacrifices inherent in the life he chose to live. One of those film you can’t frown at eve if you tried, Bill Cunningham, New York examines a visionary talent with an empathy and grace uncommon with a subject so wonderfully odd. Lesser filmmakers could have made a mockery of the man but you can tell this is a labor of love, a documentary made to inspire, not smear. As the film finishes, you find out just how many people Bill Cunningham has inadvertently touched and realize he’s touched you too. A remarkable documentary about a remarkable New York character, Bill Cunningham, New York not only tells the story, but conveys the spirit, a rare feat in documentary filmmaking.
Score – 90%