Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review: 'Jobriath A.D.: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fairy Tale'


In 1972, David Bowie made history when he declared “I’m gay” to Michael Watts of Melody Maker. During the earliest days of the gay pride movement, it was a big deal to have a major pop star come out of the closet in a major music paper. Just six years later, Bowie was once again chatting with Watts in the pages of MM, only this time he heavily implied that his “homosexuality” was all part of building the Ziggy Stardust character.

The year after Bowie made the declaration that would continue to be a topic of discussion even after he admitted he’d always been heterosexual, an artist regularly diminished as “The American David Bowie” made a similar announcement. The big difference was that Jobriath actually was gay, and instead of being an offhand provocation in the press, his homosexuality was an outright publicity campaign. There was barely a scrap of press written about the singer-songwriter that didn’t dwell on his orientation. This was not Jobriath’s idea. The mastermind behind selling the singer’s sexuality was his manager, Jerry Brandt. Sadly, Brandt completely misjudged the tenor of a time that was pretty staunchly homophobic despite those initial uprisings in the gay movement. Jobriath’s pop career never got off the ground. Neither of his albums charted. Brandt dumped him. Jobriath ended up on the cabaret circuit and barely left a footnote in Rock & Roll history as “The American Bowie” whom Bowie, himself, wrote off as a piffling fraud. Jobriath died of AIDS in 1983.

This is part of the story told in Kieran Turner’s new documentary Jobriath A.D.: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fairy Tale, but it is hardly the story in full. We are not introduced to Jobriath as a failed pop star or a confused kid struggling with his sexuality or any persona that might make way for clichés. Our first Jobriath is a great success, starring in the L.A. production of the smash musical Hair alongside R&B legend Gloria Jones. A few years later he is signed to Elektra Records and cutting his debut album with famed producer Eddie Kramer (and Richard Gere on backing vocals!). His face and body are plastered on billboards and bus ads. He is not a joke. He is not a mere David Bowie clone. He is an original voice melding prog rock, glam, cabaret, and Beethoven. We spend the first thirty minutes of Jobriath A.D. with a star.

Then we backtrack to his troubled home life, the introspective man he really was, how an incident going AWOL from the military resulted in young Bruce Campbell morphing into Jobriath. Turner’s structure is brilliant, forcing us to rethink the scraps of information we thought we knew about the obscure pop singer. The filmmaker fills out the tale with illuminating interviews (Brandt emerges as a deeply flawed and fascinating character in his own right) and imaginative animated sequences that illustrate some of the stranger episodes of Jobriath’s story, such as his aborted Paris Opera House spectacular that would have found him playing King Kong scaling a model Empire State Building that would transform into a giant penis before the star transformed into Marlene Dietrich.

Jobriath A.D. is one of the most moving, most insightful, most revelatory Rock documentaries I’ve ever seen. Factory 25 presents it on home video with a deservedly lavish presentation. Extras include a director’s commentary and extended interviews with the likes of Gloria Jones, Marc Almond (valuable since he receives very little time in the proper film), actor Dennis Christopher, Jayne County, and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott among others. Giving fuller air to music is 16 minutes of crackly footage of Jobriath recording his debut album and a video for Almond’s cover of “Be Still”.

The DVD is packaged alongside a clear-vinyl LP featuring Jobriath running through a scrapped musical concept alternately known as “Popstar” and “The Beauty Saloon”. After composing a made-to-order score for producer Joe Papp’s adaptation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, Jobriath went to work on an original piece marrying details from his own pop star years with gangster movie tropes. Between songs he provides narration and stage direction. Though the music is a product of Jobriath’s cabaret years (when he went by several names, including the not-too-subtle “Cole Berlin”), there’s some real Rock & Roll energy in the work, particularly on the pumping “Time Sat on My Face”. The recording is crude, but its intimacy is touching, another welcome revelation among many in the wonderful Jobriath A.D. project. I hope David Bowie is listening and rethinking.

Get Jobriath A.D.: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fairy Tale on Amazon.com here:
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