It would be difficult to find an American adult who hasn’t heard of Playboy. Since the magazine was first printed in the 1950s, Hugh Hefner’s infamous publication has become an American cultural staple and a generalized symbol for a young man’s sexual awakening. But like many well-known cultural staples, Playboy only represents the interests of specific people; namely, straight white men. In the 1970s, there wasn’t really anything remotely similar to Playboy for gay men. But then, International Male came along. Founded by former Air Force Private Gene Burkhard, International Male was designed to be part magazine and part catalog. It was meant to give men, both straight and gay, more fashion options. But for gay men, International Male was also a form of validation. For many, the pictures in this humble catalog were the first they had seen that represented the male body as something beautiful. In All Man: The International Male Story, first-time feature directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed, along with writer/producer Peter Jones (Glorious Technicolor), shed light on this influential magazine and present it as a small but important part of queer history.
All Man begins with Burkhard’s backstory and works its way through the short history of International Male before it was sold to Hanover Direct in the late 1980s. With colorful backgrounds, charming and personable interviewees, and a nostalgic parade of magazine photos and advertisements, All Man doesn’t have to try very hard to keep our attention. The documentary is fast and fluid, which makes it exciting and easy to watch. However, the quick transitions also make it easy to lose track of where the story is going. The documentary shifts gears quickly, and it’s difficult to keep track of when and how the subject changes. Considering how much ground All Man is trying to cover, it’s no wonder things move so quickly. A lot happened during the years that Burkhard owned the magazine. As All Man outlines the history of International Male, it also covers men’s fashion, LGBTQ identity politics, the fetishization of the male body, and male sexuality. All Man gives us a brief glimpse of how these factors affected the cultural changes of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. That’s more than enough topics for a docu-series, let alone an 83-minute documentary. While All Man provides a detailed and balanced overview of the cultural setting into which International Male emerged, it doesn’t do much in the way of commentary or analysis. The film remains comfortably on the surface of these topics, which may leave viewers wanting more.
All Man presents the first decade of International Male as a short but sweet cultural moment that meant a lot to the gay community. It maintains a fun and lighthearted tone with bright backgrounds and a high-energy soundtrack. That’s not to say that the film skips over all the heavy and emotional stuff. All Man has its fair share of emotional subjects, from the AIDS epidemic to the dismantling of the original International Male magazine after the company was sold. However, the documentary never lingers on those heavy topics for too long. All Man will certainly lift your spirits, but it will also leave you wondering whether or not it should have given more reverence to those heavy topics. For example, when All Man gets to the part of the story where Burkhard sells the company to Hanover Direct, it stays very neutral. It neither defends Burkhard’s decision nor chastises him for seemingly giving up on the company and team that he built from the ground up. The documentary’s neutral stance becomes more frustrating when the former International Male employees start talking about how Burkhard’s decision impacted them. Did Burkhard not care that most of the original team was let go? Was he unbothered by how much the magazine changed under new ownership? Did he ever reach out to his former employees? Despite the documentary’s lighthearted tone, All Man will leave you asking these difficult questions.
And yet, All Man wouldn’t be the same documentary if it had taken a stronger stance on Burkhard’s decision or gone more in depth about the heavy topics. Perhaps Darling, Reed, Jones, and the production team just wanted to make a lighthearted, fun, and informative documentary that presents the disappointing and emotional parts of the magazine’s history as they happened, without any divisive commentary. If All Man was created to tell people about International Male, to get people thinking about the role of fashion in queer history, and to honor the accomplishments of the original International Male team, then it fulfills its purpose. It can be difficult for us not to expect more out of documentaries, especially those that deal with topics like gay rights and queer visibility. We want those documentaries to take a stance and say something important, but not every documentary needs to. All Man may not change your mind about anything or teach you anything groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t bring a smile to your face.
The documentary ends with a reminder that Burkhard was “always in it for the fun, not the money. Still, he and his ragtag band of outsiders had made a difference, perhaps without even knowing it.” This statement sums up All Man as a whole. The documentary isn’t trying to make any groundbreaking claims or stir up controversy, and it’s not trying to bring in millions of dollars (then again, most documentaries aren’t). Much like the founder of International Male, All Man is all about the fun. It shows us how an unlikely group of outsiders created something that they could be proud of, even if it only lasted for a decade. All Man honors a small part of fashion history that many people may not know about, and it allows those who were positively impacted by International Male to share what it meant to them.
Available to rent and purchase on all major digital platforms June 6th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official All Man: The International Male Story website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.