As a young, queer individual, it’s imperative for myself to know the history that has made the queer community so strong today: the culture, the tragedy, the struggle, and in the case of queer New Yorkers in the 1980’s, the parties. The culture of eccentric, over-the-top, impeccably crafted parties became commonly known as the “club kid” scene. Names like Lee Bowery, Klaus Nomi, James St. James, and Amanda Lepore became synonymous with the culture, while current queer icons like RuPaul got their start working these illustrious parties. At the center of the scene was an enigma of a person, a Swiss-born, reserved, straight woman known as the chief craftsman in creating this nightlife culture: Susanne Bartsch.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top plays pretty close to the chest as a documentary, especially given its enigmatic subject. It’s not particularly subversive, nor is it so pedestrian that it feels made for television. While a stranger approach would’ve been a great fit for the personality that is Bartsch, for those younger individuals that might be unfamiliar with her work and the immense stamp she left on the queer community, this approach makes it the perfect place to start to learn about her.
The film covers Bartsch’s history as a socialite through her continued work of curating events in New York City and leads up to her museum exhibition of her life’s work at the Fashion institute of Technology in Sept. 2015. (Fun story about this exhibition: I stumbled upon it roaming the streets of New York looking for something to do one fall afternoon, completely coincidentally.) It starts with her days as a child in Switzerland, goes all the way up through the AIDS crisis, her marriage to personal trainer David Barton, her life with son Bailey, and to the present day.
It’s interesting to see the current slate of modern club kids still working with Bartsch in the nightlife scene of New York. In the modern age of Tinder and Grindr, plus the mainstreaming of the drag scene thanks to things like RuPaul’s Drag Race, the continued existence of such a club kid scene was quite surprising and refreshing. The way that Bartsch has evolved and grown her work over the years, even as the culture has changed and moved away from the style she holds so dear to her, is not only admirable, but downright incredible.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top not only gets Bartsch’s story, captures the person she is behind the elaborate makeup and massive parties. On one page, Bartsch is an extroverted party girl, looking to please. On the next page, she’s a reserved mother, one who obsesses over cooking dinner correctly with her aptly placed “Life is better with a schnauzer” refrigerator magnet. On yet the next page, we find a perfectionist craftsman who, rightfully so, must display a bevy of “diva” antics to get her singular vision of her look, her parties, and her exhibition correct with her creative team behind her. Fashion has borrowed so heavily from the queer club kid scene and Bartsch has been at the center of it since nearly the start of it all. Despite this, Bartsch is a humble person who attributes her success to others while doubting she’s even had success to begin with despite her major influence in not only the queer community, but in the mainstream eye.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top is eager to show off how Bartsch has influenced an entire new wave of fluid individuals who simply look for new ways of expression, without labels: members of the queer community as well as straight men and married straight couples who dress in drag, all simply wanting to subvert society’s expectations of gender and style. There’s a real sense of being behind the voices who speak of Bartsch’s influence on their lives. This culminates heavily when Bartsch threw her Love Ball in 1989. Bartsch threw a Harlem Ball-themed fundraiser influenced by a counterculture of competitive dance, aka “vogueing,” prevalent in queer communities of color, and by the horrible effects the AIDS crisis had taken upon the queer community in the ‘80s. Unlike the club kid scene she was used to, this didn’t just have her local friends and members of her community show up. It made much more of an impact. Stars like Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Susan Sarandon, and Madonna attended. Over the course of one Bartsch event, millions of dollars were raised and donated to the effort of fighting AIDS. Perhaps Bartsch’s crowning achievement, it’s the one event she never says she could have done better.
And that’s the beauty of Susanne Bartsch: On Top. While it’s a straightforward documentary in the general filmmaking sense, Bartsch herself is anything but. She’s a perfectionist; almost maddeningly so. The sense that she could always do better makes one want to scream at the screen about the impact she’s made on the queer community with her presence, her style, and her love. Yet, there’s the feeling that Bartsch still has a long way to go before ever getting complacent. As long as there are always people who are looked down upon by society for being different, or as long as there are limits of “appropriateness” in place when dealing with personal expression, Bartsch will be around, doing what she does best: subverting the world’s expectations back onto them.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.