Screen Savor: Top of the Heap

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Now available on VOD, “Susanne Bartsch: On Top” (The Orchard/World of Wonder), about “queen of the night” party-thrower and fashionista Susanne Bartsch, joins the ranks of documentaries such as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, “RBG”, “McQueen” and “Whitney”, attracting audiences. Even though it takes a while deliver its wallop – and be prepared for when it does – it’s still worth a look.

Swiss-born Bartsch says she felt stifled as a child and “never wanted to fit in with the norm”. She moved to London under the guise of learning better English, but never attended school. Instead, she was out gallivanting all night. Her parents stopped supporting her when she stayed in London and she landed a job at a store called Crumble, later coming to America as the girlfriend of a painter.

Bartsch, who’s been living at the Chelsea Hotel since 1981, wanted to bring the explosion of post-punk creativity she experienced in London to the states. She opened a fashion business, bringing avant-garde people and style from London to NY. In 1986, she started hosting a night in a club inspired by Leigh Bowery’s Taboo. She was soon dubbed New York’s “queen of the night” (according to Interview subject Michael Musto, “no one can throw a party like her”), on a mission to “unite gay, straight, uptown, downtown, drag, businessmen.” The price of admission? “Dress up, look fabulous.”

Among the nightlife personalities interviewed in the doc are Amanda LePore, Joey Arias, Duo Raw, Kenny Kenny, Queen Sateen & Exquisite, Muffinhead, Sussi Suss, make-up artist Kabuki Starshine, and drag mother/activist Flawless Sabrina, among others. The doc’s co-producer RuPaul, who met Bartsch in 1988 when she hired to him to emcee her night at Copacabana, talks about how Susanne picked up where Warhol left off.

Bartsch’s personal life is also undeniably fascinating. Just ask her ex-husband gym owner David Barton. Bartsch and Barton, who have spit up, gotten back together and split up again (“like a yo-yo”, says Susanne) are also the parents of son Bailey Bartsch Barton, a student at Brown University. It’s Bailey who actually provides some of the most endearing background on his mother. While Bailey doesn’t go to most of his mother’s parties (he admits it’s “hard for him to do what his parents are good at”), he appears grateful to have had parents with an unconventional lifestyle who showed him all the options, growing up in Chelsea surrounded by positive, loving relationships.

The doc also features the lead up to the opening night of Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, an exhibit at the FIT Museum on New York. As a muse to some of the most important designers in history, Susanne was convinced to do the museum exhibition by Valerie Steele, chief curator at the FIT Museum.

The doc’s emotionally stirring highpoint occurs late in the film when Susanne’s contributions to AIDS awareness and fundraising are highlighted. While the (pre-social media) world she created in the clubs was known as a place where no one had to hide, where they could feel free for a few hours in a safe place for those who felt like they had nowhere else to belong, it was the action she took at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that had the most profound effect.

Bartsch is visibly shaken when talking about Klaus Nomi, the first person she knew dying of AIDS in the 1980s, as well as when she remembers the numerous AIDS-dead and the impact on the Harlem ballroom community. At a time when people were torn between grief, terror and rage, and homophobia reached new levels, Susanne came up with the idea for the Love Ball, an AIDS fundraiser and “serious political action”. Recruiting Simon Doonan (from Barney’s) to help her, the event snowballed with tables selling for $10k, corporate and private sponsorships, celebrities in attendance, and substantial media coverage.

Single and “not 18 anymore”, Bartsch has nevertheless endured for 30 years, With “Susanne Bartsch: On Top”, co-writers/directors Anthony Caronna and Alexander Smith have found a fitting way to pay homage to her contributions and staying power.

Rating: B-


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