Thursday, February 10, 2011

In Theaters: "Vidal Sassoon: The Movie"

In the opening montage of Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, the famed hairdresser is compared to Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, and Jesus. That’s a bit much to put on him, much less to live up to. Thankfully, the rest of the film takes a much less solemn approach (though with about that degree of reverence)—it’s a bright, cheery pop confection, the entertaining tale of “how one man changed the world with a pair of scissors.”

The film is directed by Craig Teper and co-produced by Bumble and Bumble founder Michael Gordon; it utilizes Gordon’s assembly of a coffee-table book about Sassoon, one of his idols, as the loose framework with which to tell his story. It is the tale of a self-made man, a poor kid from London who developed a love for hair styling from his first apprenticeship and ended up revolutionizing the entire landscape of hair design, becoming a marketable, one-man industry in the process.

As is befitting its subject, this is a bright, slick, impeccably-designed documentary, full of stylish black and white interviews, colorful graphics, and inventive photography—Teper makes it his mission to make the interviews more active and dynamic than the typical bust shot of a talking head. Sassoon does a gorgeous walk-and-talk next to the Thames, London Bridge in the background; later, when discussing his love for football, he chats about the sport (in a team jersey and shorts) from the center of a richly saturated football stadium. Teper’s also digs up some wonderful archival footage (particularly those kitschy ‘70s commercials and TV appearances), and he has a gift for montage—the reflection of swinging ‘60s London is a real kick.

Those glossy aesthetic tools aren’t just flashy surface, however; Teper uses them to pull us in to his world, to understand the industry and the time, in order to put his particular achievements into context. This is what the best docs do—personally, I couldn’t care less about hairdressing, but the film is so well-constructed that you are involved in his work, drawn in to the jargon and politics of the biz, and so you actually understand the importance of the work he did on Nancy Kwan and Mia Farrow, and you get how revolutionary the breakthrough of the “five-point cut” was. (The on-screen text and geometric graphics illustrating the latter are a clever touch.) But the film also doesn’t operate in some kind of an industry vacuum; we get how the proliferation of Sassoon salons and products didn’t just make him a millionaire (though they did), but served as a kind of economic equalizer for women of the time. They could all get these chic cuts that the movie stars and models were getting, and there’s often some self-confidence that comes from being stylish and hip. The film backs the credible and thought-provoking thesis that Sassoon actually had a profound effect on class and gender roles in the U.K.

Vidal Sassoon: The Movie is at its best as a portrait of a star on the rise and at the top; it’s visceral fun to watch him storm both sides of the pond, fine-tuning his persona and having the time of his life. But as Sassoon notes, “The downs come and you’ve got to steel yourself”; his came with the break-up of his supposedly model marriage and the overdose of his daughter a few years back. This is one of the few sour notes in the film—they go into that pain, but don’t really know where to go with it, so it’s kind of acknowledged and then dropped without any real insight. The business with the book is also a structural experiment that doesn’t quite play; I appreciate the attempt to work out a new framework for a bio-doc, but the heavy emphasis on it (and the frequent appearances by Gordon) occasionally threatens to turn the picture into an informercial for the volume. And the wrap-up drags a bit, putting a bit too long of a tail on a film that has been admirable for its brevity.

“How did it all happen?” asks the film’s subject, now 81 years old (and looking about twenty years younger). “How did so much adventure happen?” And he uses the right word there, “adventure”—the kind of adventure he clearly had a good time having, and that we have as nearly as much fun watching. Vidal Sassoon: The Movie isn’t just an involving, informative doc; it’s also a good time at the movies.

"Vidal Sassoon: The Movie" opens Friday, February 11th in New York and Friday, February 18th in Los Angeles.

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