Documentary A Man’s Story is the result of director Varon Bonicos trailing British fashion designer Ozwald Boateng around the world with a camera for 12 years. With such a premise, one could reasonably hope for a rigorous, sweeping character study of a mercurial talent and, if we’re really lucky, a revealing portrait of one of the more idiosyncratic and competitive of the creative industries. Sadly, we get neither. As this desperately frustrating film illustrates, access does not automatically equate to insight, especially when the director recourses incessantly to bland reality TV tropes, and the subject proves unable to relinguish control of the material.
Boateng is a fascinating character, no doubt. Born in 1967 to Ghanaian immigrant parents, he opened his first shop on London’s landmark Savile Row at the impressively young age of 27: not only the youngest, but also the first black man to do so. The film kicks off a few years later in 1998 at a real low point for the designer. He’s just gone through a divorce, his business is on its knees, and he’s about to have his entire collection (worth £75k) stolen. From such unpromising beginnings, Bonicos traces a ‘phoenix from the flames’ narrative with barely a hint of formal imagination, clip clopping chronologically through a mix of Boateng’s highs (getting married, being appointed creative director of French fashion house Givenchy, organising a landmark African Union Summit in 2007) and a few lows (haphazard fashion shows, more relationship tribulations), interspersed with observations from Boateng in present-day talking-head mode. Technique-wise, it’s no surprise at all to discover that Bonicos was the executive producer on Boateng’s short-lived reality show House of Boateng, which briefly troubled US airwaves in 2006. This information also goes some way to explaining how cosy the whole enterprise feels.
Though Boateng is possessed of an undeniable presence and charisma (and certainly deserves some credit for turning his occasionally troubled personal life over to the cameras), his omnipresence not just as subject but also as chief commentator mercilessly compromises the film’s ability to come anywhere within touching distance of the holy grail named Objectivity. Save for a sheaf of fawning celebrity tributes from the likes of Will Smith, Laurence Fishburne and *cough* Michael Bay, there are precious few external voices on hand to provide context or assist with a rounded portrait of the man, and it’s left to Boateng to summarize his own strengths and weaknesses in a rather off-puttingly preening style. It’s all tantamount to autohagiography, a putative genre more suited to diary rooms in reality TV shows, or mockumentaries, than serious works.
Despite Boateng’s obvious necessity for control, there are a handful of enjoyable moments captured for posterity, most notably the sequence in which he gorges on the unpromising combination of chocolate, cheese and vodka in the back of a Russian limousine. There’s also a tangible frisson of excitement in the scenes in which he meets his second wife (model Gyunel) and the pair describe how they fell for each other. Meanwhile, occasional amusing passages of impassioned artistic hauteur seem ripped straight from pages of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel ‘Glamorama’ or the film it influenced, Zoolander. One spectacularly chaotic Milanese fashion show (“Luka! Gustavo! Where’s Igor?”) is a case in point.
However, more than (or perhaps a by-product of) the flat, linear, point-and-shoot style and the dulling lionisation of its subject, the most disappointing aspect of A Man’s Story is how much of a missed opportunity it represents. Other than one or two cursory early nods, there’s scant insight into what makes the man tick professionally, what influences his trailblazing designs, or how he reacts to trend shifts in the fashion world. Neither is there any sense of how the fashion world operates as a business, or if there exist any professional rivalries; Boateng, it seems, is an island. Even more bafflingly, Boateng’s role as a costume designer on a string of high-profile films including Eastern Promises, Assault on Precinct 13, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Matrix and Miami Vice is summarily ignored.
You suspect that in titling the film A Man’s Story, the aim was to furnish the project with an understated grandeur (as in “we’re calling it that because we want people to think he’s just a regular guy, but we know that’s not true… he’s Ozwald Boateng!”), however the moniker is disingenuous in more ways than one; it’s less a story than simply a collection of things that have happened, delivered in the blandest possible style – practically an electronic press kit stretched out to feature length. As an audio-visual record of some of the movements of one of Britain’s foremost creative talents, it has some worth and a sprinkle of entertainment value, but as a documentary? Forget it; you can learn more about Boateng and his place in the fashion world from his Wikipedia page.
A Man’s Story is in cinemas now.