Paris Is (still) Burning, the 30th anniversary of a masterpiece
The iconic queer documentary by Jennie Livingston charting New York’s ‘ballroom culture’ is as relevant and powerful as ever
By James Anderson Above image: (Ronald Grant Archive) Wednesday 3 June, 2020 Long read
London-based fashion designer and nightlife icon, Michael Costiff, who ran the legendary drag night, Kinky Gerlinky, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, recalls attending various Paris Is Burning-era New York balls in the city. ‘Everyone took the competitions very seriously,’ he confirms. ‘Each category was endless, with lots of disputes about authenticity of designer labels. Furs were checked for realness and everybody in the crowd had an opinion. It was a hoot and went on for hours.’ The singer and model, Roy Brown, who has worked with Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Pet Shop Boys and Neneh Cherry, among others, was also an occasional visitor to the Big Apple at the time. He and his choreographer/ dancer friend, Les Child, hung out with the Paris Is Burning gang, while the documentary was actually being filmed. As soon as they returned to London, they and a group of friends formed the House of Child, bringing the very first wave of vogueing directly to the capital’s club scene. Brown summarises the core preoccupation of Paris Is Burning as: ‘Community – as found in the houses and the support for anyone who was cast out by their families, or those whom society and the establishment thought didn’t fit in. They found a haven where they all fitted in and were celebrated.’
'Paris Is Burning’s universal message is of acceptance, aspiration, love and community, which remains as relevant now as it was back then'
In the years since its release, the film and the vogueing scene of the 1980s have provided ongoing inspiration to newer waves of creatives and culture vultures. It reverberated through the wildest 1990s club nights – at the Sound Factory in New York, or Kinky Gerlinky in London, for example – and was emulated in a myriad music videos throughout the same decade. Various 21st-century fashion designers and brands, including Hood By Air, Raf Simons, New Power Studio and Kim Jones, have at different times referenced this iconic moment of fierce New York cool in their collections and on runways.
To mark the 30-year anniversary of the documentary, a digitally restored version of it has now been issued on Blu-ray. This is accompanied by an hour of previously unseen footage, plus other related commentary and interviews with film critics and historians. There’s also a lavishly designed booklet, all of which have been curated and released by The Criterion Collection. It is a fitting tribute to a film that’s achieved cultural and social reach far beyond the ballroom or the dance floor. Even as far back as 1991, Jennie Livingston was brilliantly articulating Paris Is Burning’s universal message of acceptance, aspiration, love and community, which remains as relevant now as it was back then. ‘This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they’re gay or not,’ she told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper at the time. ‘It’s about how we’re all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it’s about survival. It’s about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy.’