As a concept, nightlife is thought of as a frivolous and fun distraction, a form of entertainment that exists to provide escapism from the drudgery of daytime life, but it's more than that. Few can top New York promoter and party queen Susanne Bartsch in this regard and a new documentary, Susanne Bartsch: On Top, sets out — and pretty much succeeds — in proving it.
As a Los Angeles nightlife reporter, I’ve been hearing about Bartsch for years. Her glamorous getups, audacious entourages and otherworldly atmospheres, based in Manhattan, have been bringing out a mix of fabulous and famous denizens for decades. A few years ago, she threw a party in L.A. (a West Coast version of her shindig called Kunst) and it featured some of our most colorful characters and scenesters co-hosting and attending. Bartsch bashes are known for their dress-up and decadence, and anyone into fashion or club history is probably familiar with her name as she’s garnered attention not only in local publications like The Village Voice, but national mags such as Paper and the fashion glossies, too. A young drag queen from her crew, Aquaria, even won RuPaul’s Drag Race this past season.
Bartsch deserves mention alongside iconic NYC people, places and movements such as Studio 54, Andy Warhol and his Factory, the club kids of the Disco 2000 era, and the ballroom, drag and punk scenes — all of which she was either a part of or sought to celebrate in her own way. Even if you have no idea who this striking woman with the adorable Swiss accent was or is, you probably know a bit about one of the aforementioned hot spots and trends. In On Top, filmmakers Anthony Caronna and Alexander Smith not only put it all in context for you, they intimately explore how it all influenced their subject and how she influenced both fashion and pop culture in turn, not just in New York but everywhere.
The film begins — as many nights for Bartsch do — in her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. A makeup artist is doing her face, fixing her hair and helping her get dressed for another over-the-top extravaganza, which happens to be at the new gym of her estranged bodybuilder/trainer husband. We learn about her personal life pretty early on — her unconventional marriage and separation, and her surprisingly conventional role as a mother. Archival footage shows the impresario at home raising her son (who, now grown, also speaks about what it was like growing up with attention-grabbing parents in the Chelsea while surrounded by artists and cross-dressing creative types).
Bartsch reflects on her family life in Switzerland, then her swinging days and nights in the U.K., which led her to open her own Chelsea boutique selling the edgiest London punk fashion, often from designers who would go on to be legendary. It wasn’t long before she was hosting and throwing parties where the flamboyant frocks she hawked by day could be shown off at night. It’s clear right away that Bartsch’s fantastic eye, unique style sense and zesty personality drove her into this glam life. You kinda can’t imagine her doing anything else, and when she explains that her motivations (like many in club promotion) are anything but superficial, you believe her.
And why not? Bartsch’s world is about celebration of life — inclusiveness, welcoming outsiders no matter their sexual preference, finances, race, age (Wikipedia lists her age as 50, and at the film's premiere last week she looked more fab than ever, even donning one of the outfits she wore in the movie from many years prior). Friends and fans sing her praises in the film, including RuPaul (whom she helped discover and who co-produced On Top), the Voice’s Michael Musto and several others in glorious, glitter-drenched getups throughout the movie. Additionally we see footage from her biggest bash of all, the Love Ball, which brought NYC’s ball and vogue-ing community together with drag and major celebrities, and raised millions for AIDS and HIV, then devastating the LGBTQ community in New York and L.A.
Culture vultures will love all the glitz, fashion and hedonism depicted in On Top, and its subject is endearing throughout (even when she’s in a bad mood, stressed out or mad when a planned party look doesn’t come together as she’d hoped). A running thread throughout the film concerns an exhibit of her outlandish club looks to be displayed at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York with — of course — another big star-studded spectacular attached. Seeing the show come together is one of the film's highlights.
Of course, documentaries depicting aspirational lifestyles are a dime a dozen these days. What makes this film different — and pretty special — is its obvious attempt to go deeper, to show that people we might consider life-of-the-party types are multidimensional. Bartsch set the bar in New York, throwing the kind of crazy kaleidoscopic soirees that Saturday Night Live's Stefon famously lampooned. But despite the stereotypes, what she was doing, and still does, is deep and important, even if it is mostly about escapism.
Going out and being seen, drinking, dancing, flirting, hooking up and enjoying whatever else the evening may bring doesn’t preclude prioritizing other things in life. And it is a fact that many of us who love after-dark fanfare also value a quiet, subdued and relaxed home life by contrast — maybe more than those who don’t go out at all. Social people are often the most antisocial when they don’t have to be, and they have lots of personal connections, creative ideas, thoughts and things to say beyond the flashing lights and thumping music wherein they choose to express themselves. Susanne Bartsch: On Top gives us a look at both sides, illuminating the Zenlike desire to nest and rest before taking flight once again into the night.