A self-indulgent pilgrimage to the shrine of '70s fabulousness, "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston" assembles a fine assortment of archival material but falls far short of its stated goal. Halston, who died in 1990, is a compelling subject — a Midwesterner who became synonymous with Manhattan night life while changing the fashion industry — and his story helps to define an era. That story is trivialized in this glitter-deep overview of familiar Studio 54 terrain.
The film combines two documentary subgenres: the fashion doc and the inquisitive-filmmaker-inserted-in-every-scene doc. The spotlight-hogging director is star-struck first-timer Whitney Sudler-Smith. His on-screen contributions showcase how, over the two years of globe-trotting that it took to shoot the film, he switched up his personal retro style. That, combined with his clumsy interviewing, makes for a performance bordering on parody. (He asks Liza Minnelli if he can touch her Halston velvet pants. Graciously, she lets him.)
Driving the film over its many detours — such as an interview with Billy Joel, who mentioned Halston in a song — is Sudler-Smith's acute longing for "that glamorous, decadent time" when pre-AIDS New York partied amid its ruins. It was a time when Halston took American fashion to new levels of casual elegance, as interviewees, and the still-influential designs themselves, attest. His groundbreaking licensing deals, controversial but prescient partnership with JCPenney and loss of his brand to a conglomerate — it's all laid out, but with little sense of the man behind the empire.