A Vidal Sassoon Doc Slides on the Surface

Alice Gregory | February 25, 2011
Vidal Sassoon's dramatic bob was a hallmark of the '60s.

There are compelling reasons to make a documentary about Vidal Sassoon. His asymmetrical “5-point” hairdo, created in 1963, with its emphasis on natural, product-free body, liberated women from the tyranny of salon culture. The amount of time women once spent each week getting coiffed, suffering the chemicals and the heat — not to mention the boredom — is unthinkable today. His dramatic bob, cut on the bias and to the personal geometry of each client’s face, is one of the hallmark images of the 1960s. He was the original celebrity hairdresser and the first to market his own line of products. If Vidal Sassoon warrants close examination, it’s for the surprisingly disproportionate impact his mere haircut had on feminism. But despite its good intentions, Vidal Sassoon: The Movie isn’t that doc; it seems to misidentify its motivation. Director Craig Teper spends too much time lionizing the man behind the shears and not enough time inspecting the women beneath them.

Born in 1928 to Jewish immigrant parents in London’s East End, Sassoon endured a tumultuous childhood of orphanages and bombings. He worked as a glove cutter, a bike messenger, and finally as a hairdresser’s apprentice, where he learned the fundamentals of his craft as well as the necessary neuroses of perfectionism. He remembers, for instance, being required to have clean nails and pressed trousers, even in wartime. Sassoon made the 5-Point hairdo, which supposedly took twelve years to perfect, famous when he cut four feet of hair from actress Nancy Kwan’s head. The photos were printed in Vogue, and Sassoon became an overnight sensation. His business expanded; he opened an art gallery-like salon with windows overlooking Madison Avenue. The city was made visible to the clients, and the clients were made visible to the city. Roman Polanski filmed part of Repulsion there, and in exchange, Sassoon was commissioned to give Mia Farrow her iconic pixie cut for Rosemary’s Baby. But things go downhill for Sassoon — and us — when he moves to Los Angeles. He divorces his wife, which we’re led to believe, clouds his judgment; and he misguidedly sells his product line, depriving him from subsequent decades of profit. We witness his overzealous enthusiasm for yoga and health food; we see him grinning, drinking fruit juice, and teaching Regis Philbin how to do a proper sit-up.

It’s hard to imagine now the sort of causal effects we ascribe to people like Vidal Sassoon and his friend, Mary Quant, the inventor of the mini skirt, who is also featured in the film. It’s even harder to conceive of innovations in fashion that could materially change social norms today. Teper was remiss not to spend more time contrasting the structure of women’s daily lives then and now. Instead, we get an oddly proportioned documentary, which like Vidal Sassoon himself, is obviously branded. A certain amount of commercial footage is appropriate here considering the degree to which Vidal Sassoon marketed himself. It’s fun to see such dated shampoo commercials and hear now-obsolete mottos (“If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”), but the tone begins to feel increasingly promotional, and the film’s accompanying book, which we see getting laid out in certain scenes, seems like yet another product added to the line.

From there, it gets more bizarre: Vidal Sassoon is hyperbolically compared to Einstein and Muhammad Ali; his team is at one point referred to as “The Beatles of hairdressing,” and the 5-point haircut itself is “the iPod of its day.” Relevant figures testify: Bumble and Bumble founder Michael Gordon talks about how Vidal Sassoon paved the way for innovative hairstylists and Vogue creative director Grace Coddington remembers her first haircut by Sassoon himself. Then there are endorsements from Guido and Christaan (no last names), who are each given the mysteriously Warholian tags of “Editorial Superstar.” The vast range in reputability of the talking heads is disorienting; the film feels less like a documentary than a late-night infomerical.

It wouldn’t have been hard to insert some archival b-roll footage of permed ladies reading under bonnet -style hairdryers. There are probably unfathomable statistics about how much less time we spend grooming ourselves today than we did half-a-century ago. Even just a tiny bit more historical context might have served to ward off the suspicion that Teper has been seduced by Sassoon’s charm. It would be understandable; Sassoon is telegenic and animated, with fashionable eyewear and a nice suntan. But throughout, you still think, again and again, he’s just a hairdresser. It was Teper’s responsibility to banish these thoughts before they even materialized, and the film falls short.

There’s no reason to dismiss cultural events for their ostensible triviality. There are affecting and revealing junctions between some of the most disparate-seeming things: the bikini was made fashionable, in part, because of the rationing of fabric in World War II; there were surely fewer fainting spells thanks to Coco Chanel’s replacement of corseted silhouettes with drop waist dresses. It’s even more fun, though, to trace the inverse type of relationship back to its historical roots; how, say, a haircut changed the world. By making popular a haircut that didn’t require constant care, Vidal Sassoon reprogrammed the modern woman’s week. We don’t walk away floored by this fact, as we should. Instead, a caricatured image remains: Sassoon beaming at the camera, with a canister of brewer’s yeast in his hand and an albino cockatoo perched on his shoulder.