Long the queen of New York nightlife, Susanne Bartsch, has now been immortalized in a documentary about her life and wild times, “Susanne Bartsch: On Top,” just released on video.
Since arriving in Gotham on Valentine’s Day 1981, this Swiss-born fashionista — and then some — took our little town by storm, first with the most avant-garde boutique in Soho, featuring the earliest work of Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and Stephen Jones, among other Brit and local wunderkinder. This was one groovy place to hang, and it organically morphed into her next and extant career as an event planner and party hostess extraordinaire.
Indeed, in the grimmest days of AIDS, her soirées, particularly her legendary Love Balls — where vogueing was introduced to the downtown hoi polloi and that raised vast amounts of money to fight the plague — were among the few bright spots in the dimming landscape of a once vibrant Manhattan nightlife.
In the doc directed by the team of Anthony&Alex, this incredible, incredibly glamorous survivor proves herself to be a Super Everywoman, adept at home repair, cooking, raising a son (who comes off as amazingly sane, after a childhood spent living in the Chelsea Hotel surrounded by flamboyant, gender-bending club kid friends of Mom and Dad — ex-husband, diminutive, muscle-bound gym entrepreneur David Barton), pulling off huge events that are always nerve-wracking, and making entrances sure to slay — whether it’s at Bill Cunningham’s memorial in a bikini (basically), at her own wedding encased in an egg-shaped, full-bodied veil (with hubby in a kicky thong), or more recently on a flight to Austria I shared with her early this summer to attend Vienna’s Life Ball, which took a page or two from her original.
Gay City News recently interviewed the directors.
DAVID NOH: How did this wonderful, vibrant film come about?
ALEX: We met Susanne about a week before we started filming the documentary at one of her parties. We premiered a fashion film there that Susanne loved, and the next day she invited us to see the FIT exhibit she was putting together. Susanne was clearly such an artist and force of nature that we instinctively knew we wanted to make a feature documentary on her.
NOH: I so loved the inclusion of the various club personalities-hearing their stories — why was it important to include them?
ANTHONY: Susanne’s impact and importance to underground art and nightlife can really only be shown through the stories and lives of the people she’s touched — which is far too many people to actually include in the film! Her influence is so wide that the only way to properly tell her story is to include the voices of the people who were affected by her. We also wanted to give voice to Susanne’s philosophy that we’re all connected and doing our best to move through life in a positive and artistically fulfilling way.
NOH: Tell me about your backgrounds, please, in film?
ANTHONY: Our background in film started in theater actually. We started incorporating multimedia into our work, which eventually led to us to making music videos, fashion films, and video art. It was in the process of working with incredible artists in New York that we were led to Susanne.
NOH: How long was the shoot? You were all over New York and everywhere. Was that easy to pull off?
ALEX: The shoot was a little over a year, with the entire film being completed in about two. Luckily, Michael Beach Nichols and Chris Walker, our producers and collaborators, are all Brooklyn-based like us. There were many nights when we were shooting in a nightclub until 4 in the morning, which can be a little difficult with film and sound equipment, but it was an exciting experience that took us to truly amazing places and events.
ANTHONY: One of our most cherished memories was filming Flawless Sabrina [Jack Doroshow], who has since passed away. Beyond what was said in the interview, Jack took the two of us aside and spoke to us about life and pushing through adversity in an industry that isn’t always the kindest to queer people or content. We’ll always carry that with us. It was one of our greatest pleasures to sit with that beautiful human while she was around.
NOH: Amazing archival footage. How did you acquire it?
ALEX: The vast majority of the footage came directly from Susanne herself. She had several boxes of VHS tapes with various moments of her life and career from the past that we digitized. Of course the home movies also came from her, which gives the film such an intimate feeling. It was a wild process to get the hundreds of hours of archival footage digitized, and an ever harder process to edit all of the amazing footage into just the most incredible moments.
NOH: Did you have to cut the film down much in the interests of running time. Anything that might have been left out because of that?
ALEX: In the earlier cuts there were long moments of Leigh Bowery and Lady Hennessy Brown as they performed their acts at a Susanne party in the ‘80s. Susanne always pushes the envelope with the performers she hires and we really wanted to illustrate that, but it can be hard to keep a film on track when there’s long breaks of Leigh Bowery giving birth on stage or Susanne pulling dozens of tied scarves out of Lady Hennessy Brown’s vagina, you know?
NOH: I recall she was somehow forever lactating, causing clubgoers to buy glasses of kahlua liquer for her to squirt into for White Russians. In your own words, describe incredible Suzanne and what it was like to capture her world.
ANTHONY: Susanne is a force of nature. She’s incredibly strong and wise, with a power to make things happen. To capture her world was incredibly exciting, but also stressful because it was so important to us that we truthfully capture that world and honor it for the contributions it’s made to culture.
NOH: Future projects?
ALEX: We have several super exciting projects that we’re in pre-production for now!
ANTHONY: This film has opened up so many incredible doors for us, and we want to keep honoring icons who haven’t fully gotten their day in the sun.
SUSANNE BARTSCH ON TOP | Directed by Anthony&Alex | The Orchard & World of Wonder | Available at noweather.com
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