Putting together a magazine has always appeared to me to be an impossible gauntlet of stress and dedication. Assembling the obscenely high profile fashion bible during its largest issue is a proposition fit for the loony bin. Enter Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, and a woman of precise temperament and icy control. Dispatching her underlings, photographers, and models early in the year, Wintour begins to assemble a phone-book-thick beast of a magazine, created for a prime, exalted month devoted to the next big waves in fashion and celebrity. It's known worldwide as "The September Issue."
Director R.J. Cutler was granted astonishing access to the bowels of Vogue during the 2007 ramp-up to the launch of the September Issue. It's a remarkable achievement, not only as an opportunity to observe the working parts of the influential magazine and its daily business, but to spy Wintour in action. A frail-looking fashionista found somewhere inside her trademarked curtain-thick bob, Wintour is the enigma Cutler is hoping to deconstruct, to slip past her frosty stare and robotic body language and capture an industry icon at the center of a cultural storm.
"Issue" is fairly extraordinary in the manner it grabs the fly-on-the-wall experience of Vogue, underlining the blitzkrieg of labor and ego it takes to piece together the magazine. However, the real draw here is Wintour, and while Cutler can't snatch her essence (Wintour is far too camera-aware to let her guard down), he assembles a combustible mood of aggravation, judgment, and decision-making that makes for a spellbinding documentary.
Vogue is big business. To Wintour, it's a personal mission, gathering the top names in design and photography to build a yearly road map for the fashion industry. Wintour is a tough cookie. She judges her employees from behind oversized sunglasses, wielding her opinion like a freshly sharpened samurai sword. She hates the color black and insists that fur belongs in the language of fashion. It's unnerving how well Meryl Streep channeled Wintour for her performance in "The Devil Wears Prada." While Wintour is top dog at Vogue, she's assisted by a legion of personalities and artists, including Creative Director Grace Coddington.
A former model and longtime Vogue employee, Coddington is Wintour's greatest asset and worst enemy. Brought to the American version of the magazine around the same time, the two stubborn ladies share a love for fashion, but diverge on the balance of magazine sales over artistic accomplishment. It's a respectful relationship fraught with tension, as Wintour slowly molests Coddington's amazing creativity during the production phase. All Coddington can do is protest to Cutler's camera, and her candid nature is a sublime antidote to Wintour's programmed restraint. Her wistful thoughts on the changing face of fashion, it's needlessly high-tech visual requirements, and Wintour's chilly leadership provide the jolts of honesty that elevate a dangerously sycophantic documentary like this. Coddington is the mother hen that humanizes the magazine, and observing her roll through the rainbow of emotions as her work is both marginalized and celebrated by Wintour are the highlights of the film.
The anamorphic widescreen image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) suffers from some slight instances of EE, but sustains a colorful mood to best appreciate the fashion world at hand. Footage looks nicely detailed, with clothing permitting a special visual dimension the rest of the faces and places don't always encourage. Skintones are accurate, with black levels always remaining in check. Obviously, grandiose style in all of its shapes and speeds offers the most pleasant DVD viewing experience, but the office politics and domestic comfort is given some life as well.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix deals with thin documentary elements, so don't expect an exhaustive listening experience. Interview footage is easy to understand, captured well even in the middle of swarming backstage crowds and the Vogue office bustle. Some depth is provided by the beat-happy soundtrack, which brings a comforting bottom end to the mix, allowing a special fullness to runway and party sequences. A 2.0 track is also included.
English and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director R.J. Cutler is superbly informative, covering the creation and execution of "The September Issue" in elaborate detail. Cutler turns the commentary experience into a film school class of sorts, offering his thoughts on screen details, but also pausing to take in certain scenes, using the picture to underscore his points and anecdotes. The effect isn't nearly as jarring as it could've been, due to Cutler's vast reservoir of experiences making a film about such a mysterious woman and her amazing empire.
"Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery" offers 53 pictures taken by cinematographer Bob Richman.
"Anna Wintour" (43:27) offers more with the lady of the hour as she attends meetings, deals with designers, talks politics, handles Michelle Obama's cover shoot, plans a party, and eulogizes style star Isabella Blow. We also learn here just how much Karl Lagerfeld hates clothing bargain hunters.
"Grace Coddington" (16:01) shows off her lighter side by revealing an affection for cats, helping her to deal with her stressful professional duties on photo shoots and inside the Vogue offices.
"Andre Leon Talley" (13:09) arrives to discuss a horrible world suffering from a "famine of beauty." We also see the flamboyant editor-at-large deliver a commencement speech at a fashion school and freak out when the camera crew plans to eat lunch inside of the production van.
"Thakoon" (5:42) captures the designer processing compliments and digesting his newfound recognition.
"Cover Shoot with Sienna Miller" (4:46) submits more footage with the actress as she's forcefully photographed in Rome.
And an assortment of loose ends (20:10) showcase Anna and daughter Bee working over a party, Grace discussing her inspirations, Andre stomping around Paris, and Thakoon designing a dress.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
If "September Issue" doesn't offer a definitive argument for Vogue and its industry shaping reputation, it does find a mesmerizing pulse of creativity to relish. Watching Wintour and Coddington spar over details, including the shabby appearance of cover girl Sienna Miller (described as "toothy"), conjures unexpected tension and emotion. Even for fashion industry cynics, the picture retains a riveting peek-behind-the-curtain posture that brings about a new respect for Wintour and the staff of Vogue, perhaps even introducing a sympathetic appreciation for the often comical needs of its creators.