The references come pouring out of André Leon Talley, discriminating and indiscriminate.
About midway through the documentary “The Gospel According to André,” Mr. Talley — a fashion world Zelig for more than four decades — is expounding on a Vogue photo shoot he supervised featuring Cindy Crawford as a grieving widow in a veil. A nod to Jackie Kennedy, of course. But also the films of Luchino Visconti, he says. And Empress Sisi of Austria.
Earlier in the film, discussing a designer’s collection, he declares, “Eskimos were treated like the aristocrats, and the aristocrats were treated like the serfs.”
Mr. Talley’s kinetic word association is loud, geyserlike and inspiring. And as a figure, he is joyous, absurd, leonine but tender. Yet even with this raw material, “Gospel” doesn’t rise to Mr. Talley’s vitality. The director, Kate Novack, has delivered a film that’s detailed and affectionate, but also frustratingly static, making a point not to get in its subject’s way.
The parts of Mr. Talley’s story told through archival footage are fascinating — a staggeringly tall gay black man from the American South inventing himself as a bon vivant (“You can be aristocratic without having been born into an aristocratic family”) and making himself welcome, and essential, at the pinnacle of the Paris and New York fashion world. As high fashion was becoming pop culture, Mr. Talley was there, first as a kind of aide-de-camp to Diana Vreeland, and later as an essential compatriot to Anna Wintour in her early Vogue days. (In the film, Ms. Wintour says he knows more about fashion history than she does.)
But when Ms. Novack — a producer, with her husband, Andrew Rossi, of “Page One: Inside The New York Times” — gets her lens on Mr. Talley, she doesn’t push hard. He is too fixed in the public imagination to be anything other than the stuff of legend, and he is too legendary to be a truly vulnerable subject.
There are occasional scenes of intimacy, including glimpses inside his home, or a couple of minutes on his attempts to lose weight at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center (after beginning to gain weight in his 40s, “bloated like a manatee” is how he describes his current state). And in one poignant and seemingly unplanned moment, Mr. Talley, now 68, tears up recalling the racially motivated slights that pockmarked his early career.
He doesn’t linger, though. While “Gospel” makes the civil rights movement an implicit subplot — he recalls the Durham hat store in which black women had to put on veils before they were allowed to try on hats — and uses the political rise of Donald J. Trump as a loose framing device, it shies away from deep excavations on race and fashion.
Or deep excavations of any kind, really. Mr. Talley agreed to have the cameras turned on him, but he does not give off the impression of wanting to be known. Even the testimonials from designer friends — Marc Jacobs, Norma Kamali, Tom Ford (who comes off like a Keanu Reeves character) — sometimes feel like notes from kindhearted strangers.
In the moments where Mr. Talley is called upon to perform his public self, though, he shines. To fully capture his essence would require a film more comfortable with kaleidoscopic luxury and unselfconscious whimsy — say, something along the lines of “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” But “Gospel” presumes that simply filling the screen with Mr. Talley is enough. If anyone could spot the flaw in that thinking — and offer up countless robust ideas on how to elevate it — it would probably be him.
The Gospel According to André
Rated PG-13 for mild fashion industry loucheness. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.