The name Steve Madden is an interesting one. For those who came of age in the ‘90s, Madden’s shoes, with their ridiculous, disproportionate advertisements, their high-fashion style, and their affordable cost were defining and, pretty quickly, ubiquitous. But, in the last two decades, the shoe mogul has been most associated with Wall Street and his notorious transgression: Early in his company’s growth, Madden hitched his wagon to Jordan Belfort — of “Wolf Of Wall Street” fame — and became embroiled in an insider trading scheme. In 2004 Madden was charged, convicted and sent to prison. But, as the new documentary “Madden: The Steve Madden Story” makes clear early on, people don’t exactly know who Madden is, even though he’s the mastermind behind one of the most successful shoe companies in history. It’s exactly what Ben Patterson’s film sets out to correct.
Madden’s story is undeniably ripe for the telling. Born in Queens, Madden grew up a notorious troublemaker. He was, he says in the film, undiagnosed with ADHD and his wild, manic energy was impossible to reign in. After dropping out of college, he began to self-medicate. It was, by all accounts, a rambunctious time for Madden and his friends, at once shaded by addiction, but colored by the relatively glamours way Patterson presents the era. The stories, mostly, are recounted by a laugh and an equivocation about how wild everyone used to be. Though, Madden himself is refreshingly candid about his errs — never though is there mention of anyone who might have suffered during such a tumultuous period, as is so often the case for those stuck in the orbit of an addict.
Soon, though, Madden was clean and working in a shoe store, learning everything about the craft, from designing to cobbling to selling. And once his skills matched his ambitions, Madden jumped ship with just over a thousand dollars and began cobbling shoes and selling them from the trunk of his car. Things then happened quickly. Madden managed to get his finger on the pulse of the market, found an untapped consumer base, and build a formidable company that has since become a billion-dollar empire. His model was genius — he could design a shoe and begin selling it in his Manhattan store on the same day to see if it proved popular before ever deciding to mass produce it. But it was all of his unorthodox business style — his outsider position in the market, his give-no-fucks attitude, his demand for more — that led him to Stratton Oakmont and Belfort in the ‘90s and to his eventual downfall.
At the heart of ‘Maddman,’ and what makes it work in the enjoyable way that it does, is Steve Madden. He doesn’t seem interested in pulling any punches. His candor is refreshing and his magnetism irrefutable. It’s easy to see why the same people that helped him start his company are the same ones that still surround him today — even after a relapse into addiction and a prison sentence. What’s less refreshing, though, is ‘Maddman’ itself and the inescapable sense that the movie is some sort of puff piece. Not only does the film start with the obvious (though unstated) aim to profile the real Steve Madden, but the rest of the picture is built entirely from perspectives of those directly involved with Madden’s company. It’s endearing to see that Madden has hired his childhood friends, his doorman and his former prison cellmates (as a part of an ambitious and admittedly well-intentioned program to aid those recently released from prison), but held together they make up the cult of Steve. They are people who owe something to Steve, and whether or not they truly do love and admire him (and it seems that they all really do), there is the unavoidable fact that they are indebted to him somehow.
As the film unfolds, it becomes impossible to ignore the lack of dissenting voices, the lack of perspectives from outside his inner circle. Certainly, Madden and those close to him are willing to condemn his demanding, work-centric lifestyle and his struggles with addiction, but it’s all treated as a few minor speed bumps along the road to redemption and success. And, admittedly, Madden is an indomitable figure who is hard to dislike. But that’s what makes it all the more unfortunate, that we couldn’t be shown a rounded, fair picture that would still leave us rooting for him in the end.
For all these conceptual missteps, Patterson’s film is lean (it clocks in at just 77 minutes), well-paced, and mostly engaging throughout. And Madden is hard not to like: a passionate, rabble-rousing outsider, who, through his own redemption, has become an advocate of redemption for others. It’s just a shame that ‘Maddman’ couldn’t transcend the cult of personality to truly capture the sort of man who attracts such affection. [C+]