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Dame Vivienne Westwood, the subject of “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” is a highly successful British fashion designer whose career now stretches back nearly a half-century. But for many people who might be drawn to Lorna Tucker’s documentary about her, she’s mainly known for being one of the brains behind the punk rock movement of the ‘70s, along with her then-boyfriend, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
Viewers who might look to the film for a detailed examination of that seminal moment in pop culture, be advised: Westwood doesn’t share your interest, not in the least. During the documentary’s making, she sat for a long interview at London’s Groucho Club, and she’s a very good interview subject—except when she’s not. Asked about the birth of punk and the Sex Pistols, she indicates she’d rather not talk about it, groaning, “It’s so boring.” After one derisory comment about Johnny Rotten, she clams up. The whole subject occupies maybe three minutes of the 90-minute film.
Does she resent being known for this one, fairly brief moment in her long and eventful career? Could be; she doesn’t say. It could also be that she doesn’t want to participate in any discussion that involves McLaren (who died in 2010), since their personal and business partnership appears to have ended bitterly. (They did, however, raise two sons, who, interviewed in the film, are somewhat more forthcoming about the controversial impressario.)
While Westwood is certainly a remarkable personal and cultural figure in many senses, it’s too bad she’s not more willing to discuss the genesis of punk, since it’s likely to remain the primary thing she’s known for. As the film tells it, she left art school in the early ‘60s to teach, make jewelry and marry Derek Westwood, an early love. But meeting McLaren in the mid-‘60s, when the cultural upheavals of that decade were reaching full force, doomed her marriage and set her on the path toward fashion design and cultural provocation that would make her famous.
In the early ‘70s, McLaren and Westwood ran a shop, eventually named SEX, that sold rock and roll records and clothes in London’s Kings Road. The styles they purveyed, the whole safety-pins, torn t-shirt and S&M/bondage regalia, emerged as the look of punk even as shop assistant Glen Matlock connected with customers Paul Cook and Steve Jones in the fledgling Sex Pistols; McLaren found the band a new singer in another customer who was soon renamed Johnny Rotten. (McLaren’s gleefully provocative version of this slice of pop history is much better chronicled in Julian Temple’s “The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle.)
Did the music grow out of the fashion, or was it the other way around? This is one of the intriguing questions that Tucker declines to delve into. She also doesn’t wonder about what psychic nerves the iconography of punk—with its embrace of Soviet and Nazi symbols—touched in late 20th century culture, and why it has proved so enduring. This reviewer wouldn’t have minded seeing a deep exploration of such questions, but that obviously is another film.
Most of the film that Tucker crafts chronicles Westwood’s career as a fashion designer and entrepreneur. Style-wise, she never stopped evolving and was always aggressively iconoclastic and provocative, even if such stances sometimes came to seem de rigueur. While at times her creations were seen as bizarrely outlandish, as illustrated in a clip from an early-‘80s TV appearance where the audience shouted derision at her models, her taste, persistence and hard work eventually prevailed, leaving her as one of the most honored of British designers.
As a businesswoman, she has proved equally determined and successful. We see enough of the behind-the-scenes operations of her company to perceive that she’s a tough and canny boss, though one who probably isn’t a breeze to work for. Her skills in this department, though, has left her as the only major fashion designer who still owns her own company.
On a human level, Westwood comes across as crusty and cantankerous, but the film also gives us a welcome portrait of her long marriage to Andreas Kronthaler, a student from Austria who came into her organization decades ago and fell in love with his teacher. Now her full equal in imperious eccentricity, Kronthaler dotes on her and seems an ideal partner.
In its final section, the film devotes attention to Westwood’s work as an outspoken activist concerned with various causes, especially climate change. It does not, however, mention charges that her clothes use environmentally harmful chemicals, that her furious rate of production encourages the kind of consumerism she has denounced, and that her unpaid interns have complained of their treatment. Also unmentioned are the inaccuracies many reviewers found in her 2014 authorized biography Vivienne Westwood.
Reportedly Tucker and Westwood became friends and worked on a few projects before Tucker set out to make this film. However, just before the film premiered at Sundance, Westwood released a statement saying, “The Vivienne Westwood documentary … has been made and produced by a third party and as it stands isn’t endorsed by Westwood. Lorna Tucker asked to film Vivienne’s activism and followed her around for a couple of years, but there’s not even five minutes [of] activism in the film, instead there’s lots of old fashion footage which is free and available to view online. It’s a shame because the film is mediocre, and Vivienne and Andreas are not.”
Seeing the film makes clear how disingenuous that statement is. Westwood obviously participated extensively in the making of Tucker’s film, from being interviewed at length to letting the filmmaker into her business and giving her access to associates and family members. If “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist” isn’t a great or greatly appealing film, that may have more to do with the subject’s personal limitations and unpleasantness than with the filmmaker’s skills.