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Susanne Bartsch: On Top

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Sep 12, 2018
'Susanne Bartsch: On Top'
'Susanne Bartsch: On Top'  (Source:HotDocs)

It is not easy to describe the Swiss-born Susanne Bartsch, the New York party promoter and self-styled "Queen of the Night," but at the beginning of this fascinating new documentary on her a young RuPaul offers the simple explanation that she took over where Andy Warhol left off. By the end of this affectionate, 86-minute profile on her, you can appreciate how RuPaul's comment sums her life up perfectly.

The filmmaking duo Anthony & Alex catch her in situ at the iconic Chelsea Hotel, where she has been a long-term resident. The filmmakers turn their camera onto Bartsch while she has some extraordinary make-up applied as her team ready her for the latest event she is hosting. Every part of the process of dressing up is a performance to her, and a spectacular one to witness as she has a sharp eye (and an even sharper tongue) as they help her create a new persona for that night.

Bartsch has an unwavering and impeccable sense of larger-than-life theatricality and possesses a remarkable talent for extreme fashion that always seems a perfect fit for her -- but would look ridiculously out of place on most anyone else. In the earlier days of her career she promoted and supported many of the best British avant-garde clothing designers and gave them the high-profile recognition that many of them failed to get back home. In turn, she introduced her NY interpretation of this new wave fashion to Tokyo, thus sparking the start of fashionable young Japanese craving exaggerated and extreme fashions.

However, Bartsch really came into her own when she, like the rest of the NY club life, had to deal with the devastating effect of the AIDS pandemic on the city. Her response was the Love Ball: A year in the planning, this was a truly spectacular event that rallied the fashion community to raise awareness and raise millions for AIDS research. This was the controlling Bartsch at her very best, with her eye for the most minute detail and insisting that every single element was donated free of charge. She also cajoled major industry figures to support it. She was doing what she did better than anyone else, and threw her heart and soul in it to support her friends and the legions of others trying to cope with ravages of the deadly disease.

Bartsch is heterosexual, but seems to be more of a gay man than most of the flock of nightclub regulars she surrounds herself with. Once married to the rather odd gym owner David Barton -- who always seemed to struggle to keep up with his indefatigable wife -- she does at least remain on good terms with him. Their rather conventional adult son, laden with the name Bradley Bartsch Barton, seems an unlikely fit in this abnormal family; he fondly describes his mother as often "playing a character."

Toward the end of the profile, Bartsch is preparing for a retrospective of some of her best outfits for an Exhibition at F.I.T. They represent several decades of "dressing up" in costumes designed especially for her by some of the leading avant-garde designers in the world. The fashions and the finished exhibit are totally stunning, but suddenly at the Opening Night Party we catch sight of a slightly different Bartsch. Now older, and living alone, she seems more vulnerable as dashes from guest to guest, insisting that they give her their response to the show. For once, she is in real need of the endorsement of others.

This is unquestionably a riveting tale of an intriguing woman who has made a monumental impact of NY's nightlife and pop culture. However, as close as she lets the cameras in, Bartsch still holds back a tad on letting us see the woman behind all the many masks. There is part of her that will always want to remain an enigma, or be exactly like Bradley said -- playing a character -- long as she can remain on top of her game.

This is a perfect record of a slice of NY nightlife that so needed to be made, and kudos to A & A for doing such a good job of it.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.


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