By Mike Vaughn
June 29, 2022
Funny, Fascinating And At Times Harrowing
Much like Billion Dollar Babies, a documentary about the rise and fall of the Cabbage Patch Kids fad, I wasn’t sure how an entire documentary about a men’s fashion magazine would make for an interesting watch. Thankfully, both really surprised me in the best ways possible. Like any truly great documentaries, it manages to be compelling in a few ways. Wisely, the movie focuses the first act on its founder Gene Burkard. Framing this as much Burkard’s story is a simple yet genius way of boiling this narrative down to its relatable human element. In this way we get to understand the motivations and formation of the magazine and the needs it served both in fashion and to gay men.
Of course, we also get candid interviews with Burkard himself. This is not only an invaluable piece of the zine’s history, but, also in understanding counter-culture intersecting with Queer culture. I was happy that we got a great first-hand account of what it was like being gay in 20th century America, specifically post WWII. This alone could have carried at least a documentary if not short feature, and the filmmakers paint a vivid picture of the struggles Burkard and other men faced. You then have the formation and creation of International Male which is wonderfully told from many of the surviving members (sadly many did not, but more on that later), who give engaging and colorful interviews. You also have interviews with the male models themselves which is such a highlight as it gives you an inside-baseball look from a perspective we rarely get. Not to mention providing a lot of the humor.
Rounding out the interview subjects are a host of experts in fashion including famed window dresser and fashion commentator Simon Doonan, as well as Queer Eye and RuPaul’s Drag Race judge Carson Kressley. Together they paint a story that is compelling, yes, but also, it helps tell a very interesting time in men’s fashion. Not to mention how it examines the idea of gender and masculinity, something that is always transforming. The most heartbreaking part is the period in the magazine’s history is when AIDS entered the picture. We lost many brilliant and talented people, and, as harrowing as it is, I am happy that these creative forces live on in the memories of their friends and colleagues.
For as fun and light as the documentary is overall, it is very important that we not lose sight of the AIDS epidemic and how it was severely mishandled by the powers that be. We should celebrate and highlight these incredibly talented people that we lost too soon. The lesser tragedy is how the magazine was seemingly straight-washed, losing its original identity and charm. Throughout, the film does a good job at explaining how, even though the magazine was never outright Queer, it nevertheless found a very big gay following. In fact, as pointed out by some of the interviewees it was very important in in the community, inspiring an entire generation of Queer people and future fashion pioneers.
Funny, fascinating and at times harrowing, All Man: The International Male Story is an excellent documentary that should not be missed.