NewFest: Jobriath A.D.

7.27.2012

By Jerry Portwood

Kieran Turner's documentary about the gay rock icon you've never heard of

Documentaries have become my favorite medium for quickly being able to get caught up with very specific periods of history. In 90 minutes or so you've accessed a period of history before your time or out of your reach and can have refreshingly original dinner conversation. It's like speed reading one of those biographies you always wish you get to—but never do. That's the first reason why everyone should watch Kieran Turner's loving, insightful documentary about the 1970s rock star that should have been but never was, Jobriath. 

The film begins with background concerning a mysterious figure with this solo moniker who begins by singing the kinkiest song, "Sodomy," in the original L.A. production of Hair. Although the praise heaped on Jobriath for his musical genius may seem like overkill, once you start hearing his singing and hearing his piano playing, you get it. This guy was talented. He then made it to New York City, gets caught up with impressario Jerry Brandt (best known for discovering Carly Simon), and how that deal destroys the young man's hopes for fame as he tries to become the next glam rock Bowie for the masses. The fact that he does it while being completely gay—he calls himself "rock's truest fairy"—and is rejected by the media and audiences is fascinating material for anyone looking to map 20th century queer creativity.

Part story of self-made (and re-made) American—we learn his birth name was Bruce Campbell—and part cautionary tale for anyone looking to hit it big (or the evils of the hypemachine and the eventual backlash), Jobriath A.D. gets amazing confessions from Brandt (and nearly makes him cry) and others. At times, however, it also gets bogged down in a mythology that most people will have no clue about.

You'll love the stuff that comes from Jayne County's mouth, and other talking heads include Jake Shears (Scissor Sisters), Justin Tranter (Semi Precious Weapons), and Will Sheff (Okkervil River) who explain the influence he had on their own musical upbringing and eventual output. It's pretty clear to see a Lady Gaga connection without squinting. (I just wish that better animation could have been commissioned because most of it is embarrassing to watch.) Add him to the mythology of the The Chelsea Hotel; he lived in an incredible pyramid-shaped apartment on its roof, while playing piano bars under the new name, Cole Berlin, before he died of AIDS. 

Tragic story? Yes. But it's a documentary that fills in an interesting gap in gay history that should be on everyone's must-see list.

Jobriath A.D. screens as part of NewFest Saturday, July 28, 10:30 p.m.

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