The great New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, who died in 2016 at age 87, liked to call himself a “fashion historian,” a surprisingly stodgy term for someone whose street eye for everyday style — whether highborn or low-cost, chic or cheeky — suggested a roving cultural omniscience. In what people wore, he seemed to know (and loved showing us) who we were.
But in that self-descriptor there’s more than a hint of charming self-effacement about his devotion and talent, and it’s a personality trait on full, winning display in a lively, previously unseen 1994 interview that’s the archival center of an equally spirited new documentary about him, “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” a first feature made by the man heard off-camera questioning him in the footage, Mark Bozek. (The third voice you’ll hear throughout is Sarah Jessica Parker as narrator.)
This is the second documentary about Cunningham, coming nearly a decade after Richard Press’ verité on-the-job portrait, the justly acclaimed 2011 film “Bill Cunningham New York.” But Bozek’s doesn’t feel like a rehash, primarily because of how front-and-center its subject is in all his boyish ebullience, the lit-up eyes and toothy smile animating story after story about how a hat-making Boston boy from a conservative Catholic household became a sought-after milliner in high-society designer circles post-World War II and eventually the Olympus-sporting, bicycling chronicler of flamboyance under the sun and finery at night.
Cunningham’s beguiling openness, coupled with as many estate-sanctioned photographs from his collection as Bozek can squeeze into the brisk running time, easily overcome a general roughness of assembly — some jarring music cues, choppily edited montages and an unfortunately discordant instance of name-checking the earlier doc (via Parker’s narration) in a way that sounds begrudging and mildly insulting. (We’re told, with no evidence, that the spotlight from that film’s hoopla discomfited Cunningham, but we also get the choice nugget that at the premiere he chose to stay outside and snap attendees.)
Bozek’s background is as a shopping network honcho — the Bradley Cooper character in David O. Russell’s “Joy” is him — so it’s not surprising he knows the entertainment value in centering a biodoc around a warm, engaging figure telling his own life story. Cunningham’s early days creating toppers for moneyed women and famous names who oozed personal style, his catching Paris fashion shows while stationed in France with the Army, and rubbing elbows with living legends at his cramped Carnegie studio (Brando, Bernstein, Mailer) make for an effervescently anecdotal bildungsroman.
Though Cunningham’s reputation as an equal-opportunity fashion chronicler is legion, he definitely knew what he did and didn’t like. He preferred the sidewalk to runways when looking for how fashion permeated society, natural elegance to camera-conscious posers, and the fashion-conscious to the style-expedient. He viewed many Hollywood stars as illusory figures of superficial glamour who didn’t know how to dress in real life, save Gloria Swanson, who “came close.”
His gushing excitement over the privilege of his front-line perch for fashion’s ever-changing mirror to the world — whether it’s a Diana Vreeland Met exhibit, covering every gay pride parade since the first, or the earthshaking 1973 Battle of Versailles show — is matched only by the poignance of his occasional weepiness whenever a question of Bozek’s addresses Cunningham’s own emotions. At the time Bozek filmed him, AIDS was devastating the fashion world, and a scheduled 10-minute sit-down became an extended, enthusiastic interview until Bozek ran out of videotape. It’s fair to assume one reason is that even in so modest a super fan of the sartorial as Cunningham, his recognizing that life, like fashion, is both monumental and fleeting was enough to get a passionate witness talking, sometimes through tears. And for that, we can be grateful for a record such as “The Times of Bill Cunningham.”
Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 21, Arclight Hollywood; Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino