September 25, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'The September Issue' -- GRADE: A

'September Issue' documentary goes behind the scenes at Vogue

"The September Issue" unravels how Anna Wintour, above, and Grace Coddington put out the magazine's single biggest issue. (Roadside Attractions)

A mesmerizing study of the tension between commerce and creativity, "The September Issue" is filled with surprises, not the least of which is you don't have to care a bit about fashion to thoroughly enjoy the film.

This is quite the accomplishment for documentary director R.J. Cutler ("The War Room") since the movie is about the production of Vogue's biggest annual issue, a coffee-table, book-sized thing that apparently rocks the fashion world (and sells millions of copies).

The big "get" here is Cutler's access to longtime Vogue editor Anna Wintour (parodied and then humanized by Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"), the ice queen who wields more power than anyone else in the fashion world.

But the astounding part of his film turns out to be the pull-and-push tension between Wintour and her partner/nemesis over the past 20 years, American Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, possibly the most fascinating person captured on film this past decade.

Coddington's influence on modern culture is immeasurable, yet she's virtually unknown, a plain-dressed woman in comfortable shoes who has shaped a great part of modern aesthetics from behind the scenes.

She is about the beauty, the vision; Wintour is about the bucks and the power. Coming from a family of over-achieving do-gooders, Wintour has obvious qualms about her life's work; and Cutler's take on the elitist, snobby, essentially silly industry suggests she should.

But then you see the ornate visions Coddington has assembled for the magazine, stunning work bordering on true art, and realize they might never see the light of day without Wintour. And the two sides become one.

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