Vidal Sassoon has a bone to pick with last year’s documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” “Valentino — the clothes were perfection, but he didn’t have that visionary sense of change,” says Sassoon, reached by telephone from his Mod Los Angeles manse earlier this week. “I think of Yves Saint Laurent, what they could have done with him would have been unreal….I know I am [that kind of] visionary.”
Convenient for the hairdresser then, that he has a documentary of his very own premiering tonight FOLO 4/23 in the Tribeca Film Festival. Called simply “Vidal Sassoon The Movie,” the full-length film tells the life story of the man — known to many only as the funny name on the shampoo bottles — using vintage footage as well as contemporary commentary from friends, family, colleagues and Sassoon himself. In particular, it chronicles Sassoon’s ascent from lowly shampoo boy to the father of modern hairdressing, including his invention of the geometric five-point bob in Sixties London — revolutionary for its low maintenance upkeep — and his eventual ownership of an eponymous multimillion-dollar beauty empire. (“Vidal Sassoon changed hair forever,” coos muse Mary Quant in one scene.)
But it’s the unexpected details of Sassoon’s life outside the salon that ultimately steal the show: the six years he spent as a child in a London orphanage; his stint in the Israeli Army during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; his short-lived gig as a talk show host in the Eighties; his epic womanizing (yes, he’s straight); his fanatic devotion to the Chelsea Football Club, and his ability to touch his toes at age 82.
“I’ve had an extraordinary life,” says Sassoon, whose larger-than-life personality is said to have inspired the 2008 Adam Sandler comedy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” about a muscle-bound Israeli-commando Casanova-turned-hairstylist. “[Even] I was amazed [watching this documentary].” (Unfortunately, Sassoon, who usually swims a mile four times a week and looks more like 62, is recovering from pneumonia and won’t be able to attend tonight’s screening.)
One person who will be present is the film’s producer, Bumble and bumble founder Michael Gordon, who began the project as an 80th birthday present for his longtime friend and idol. “It was just a fairly modest, sweet thing,” recalls Gordon, who tapped Bumble director of new media Craig Teper as its director.
But, before long, Sassoon approached the two with grander plans. “He said one day, ‘Why don’t we put real money behind this and actually do this?’” recalls Gordon, who also assembled a corresponding Assouline book, which will hit bookshelves this fall. Gordon says he agreed, in part, because, “I realized what we had was almost a rags-to-riches Disney story.”
Albeit one with an unconventional protagonist. “If you are an artist, architect or a photographer, there are libraries full of fabulous books and reference and articles about people in that field. But hairdressers pretty much have nothing,” says Gordon. “I wanted to give them their hero so they could feel good about themselves, sit up straight and go, ‘Wow.’ It’s kind of my gift back to the hairdressing industry.”
That’s not to say the film is a total puff piece. It highlights some of Sassoon’s rather unreasonable policies, such as sending salon employees home if their shoes were scuffed (“I wanted my standards to be high,” he says) and refusing to give customers the cut they wanted if he didn’t think it would look good (“You lose your purpose if you do that,” he counters). It also features Sassoon candidly discussing his daughter Catya’s 2002 death from a drug overdose. “I had nothing to hide,” says Sassoon, who maintains his favorite part of the film is an old clip of a former employee calling him crazy. “I like to preserve some sense of self-deprecation. Montaigne said it beautifully: ‘No matter how high you sit on your throne, you are still sitting on your own behind.’”
The final product, Gordon believes, is a tale that has mass appeal. “These last three to four years have been very difficult for people. You’ve got lots of people who can’t find jobs and a lot of people who are struggling. To see a man like this make the best of everything that was thrown at him I thought would be inspiring for people.” (Gordon might be on to something — both of the festival’s screenings are sold out.)
Still, audiences haven’t exactly been receptive to Sassoon’s life story in the past. In the Sixties, he worked with a ghost writer to produce a schmaltzy memoir titled “Sorry to Keep You Waiting, Madame.” Unsurprisingly, the effort fell flat. “It wasn’t a bestseller,” he recalls. “I just got on with the work after [writing it].”
Asked if he thinks this is a more appropriate time to reflect on his journey, the octogenarian doesn’t miss a beat: “It’s the only time. I haven’t had a spare moment before this.”