Bill Cunningham New York – a hymn to passionate, singular creativity

Bill Cunningham New York is an amazing documentary about the eponymous 82-year-old photographer who scoots around the Big Apple (do we still call it that?) on a bicycle and snaps shots of the local scenesters for the New York Times’ style pages, where he has worked for for years and years and years. I loved it. Here are some reasons why:

  • Bill is the perfect subject. He’s warm, funny, forthcoming about his art, and far from camera shy. Crucially, however, he’s also enigmatic and unknowable; even those closest to him don’t really know the full picture. This appealingly pervasive sense of mystery drives the film forwards.
  • Unlike the harrowingly one-dimensional A Man’s Story (a serious hack-job about menswear designer Ozwald Boateng, reviewed here), BCNY director Richard Press mixes up his interviews to create a satisfying, rounded portrait of the man. Cunningham is interviewed on his own, at work and among friends, while others (including such big hitters as Vogue editor Anna Wintour) are interviewed about him.
  • The film features one outrageously attired lady named Edith Sherman who lives down the hall from Bill in their Carnegie Studio residency (which is under threat from developers) who, at 96 years of age, is 14 years older than the man himself! I liked her.
  • In a creative culture increasingly defined by speed and instant gratification, Bill is a true, committed, long-haul artist. He’s a genuine observer of trends, and not just fashion, but New York life as a whole. He’s pernickety, a perfectionist, and is possessed of a strong ethos and egalitarian streak which shines through and makes you root for him even more.
  • The film’s form matches its content perfectly. Press’ deployment of jazzy music, rich colour and lively editing is fully in keeping with the sprightly nature and constant movement of his inspirational subject.
  • In some of the archive footage (mostly from the 1980s, used sparingly), Bill looks a little like David Byrne, another legendarily creative New Yorker. This, in turn, made me think of my favourite Talking Heads’ song ‘Found A Job’, which is all about a frustrated couple who jack in their respective jobs and decide to make a TV show, which becomes a roaring success and helps to revive their relationship. In a circuitous way, this took me back to Bill, whose passion for work is palpable; for him, it’s not a chore, it’s his life. That’s uplifting.
  • It’s aptly titled; encapsulating his world, a breathless rush where subject and location are inseparable, indivisible. Punctuation would just get in the way. It’s Bill’s city.
  • Bill just comes across like a lovely, lovely guy and you want to spend even more time in his company than the film’s slim 84 minutes.
  • It’s not just enjoyable; it transcends documentary filmmaking to become a hymn to passionate, singular creativity.

Go and see this film. It’s in cinemas now, via the ever impressive Dogwoof. Here’s the trailer:

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