'Susanne Bartsch: On Top': Film Review | Hot Docs 2017

Susanne Bartsch: On Top Still - Publicity - H 2017
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It captures its subject in all her fabulousness.

Anthony&Alex's documentary profiles the veteran NYC party promoter known as the "Queen of the Night."

Susanne Bartsch throws parties so you don't have to. The indefatigable promoter has been plying her hedonistic trade for decades, and nightlife has never been quite the same. Anthony&Alex's (the directorial duo have the perfect moniker for a project such as this) documentary Susanne Bartsch: On Top chronicles the "Queen of the Night" and her impact on New York City nightlife and pop culture. The film recently received its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs.

The documentary follows Bartsch around as she prepares for nights out on the town and attempts to juggle her professional and personal lives. The latter includes a former marriage to gym impresario David Barton, with whom she's still friendly, and a now-grown son who talks candidly about his mother whom he describes as often "playing a character." She's a longtime resident of the legendary Chelsea Hotel, and you wouldn't want her to live anywhere else.

Bartsch's attention to detail is illustrated in an early scene in which she tries on pink lipstick while getting dressed, only to reject it. "I know it's pink," she tells her assistant. "But it's not a pink I feel pink in."

Several NYC nightlife regulars — including such colorful figures as RuPaul, Amanda Lepore, Kenny Kenny and journalist Michael Musto — attest to Bartsch's enduring influence on the gay community as well as her general fabulousness: "Susanne Bartsch picked up where Andy Warhol left off" is a typical comment. Several of the interview subjects note her commitment to raising awareness of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when both the federal and NYC governments were largely ignoring the crisis, with her 1989 celebrity-filled fundraiser "Love Ball" identified as a landmark event

Born and raised in Switzerland, Bartsch emerges as a canny figure pragmatically aware of the need for extreme flashiness in her chosen profession but also reveling in her stylistic excesses. The film includes footage of her wedding to the muscle-bound Barton, who wears only a thong for the ceremony while she's clad in an outfit that Cher would find over the top.

Focusing extensively on its charismatic subject's preparations for a Fashion Institute of Technology retrospective, the documentary occasionally feels as rambling and endless as a long night out partying. There's only so much excitement to be gleaned, after all, from watching a woman struggling to remain au courant in the face of aging and changing lifestyles. Still, the film makes it evident that Bartsch has been a seminal figure in a subculture that, despite her continuing efforts, has come to feel sadly diminished.

Production: No Weather, Find the Light
Directors/screenwriters: Anthony&Alex
Producers: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
Executive producers: Norma Sheahan, Sarah Gilhooly, Slobodan Randjelovich
Director of photography: Michael Beach Nichols
Editor: Taryn Gould
Composer: Liam Finn
Venue: Hot Docs
84 min.