Went to see two interesting films at NewFest last night, both seeking to portray something real—one via a fictional narrative and one in mostly traditional documentary form.
MY BROTHER THE DEVIL
BOY CULTURE REVIEW: **** OUT OF ****
My Brother the Devil is the debut of writer/director Sally El Hosaini, who wanted to portray a non-stereotypical story about the youths living in a Hackney housing estate (aka project). She came up with an engrossing and emotionally complicated story with two protagonists—one is a young boxer and gang member named Rashid (James Floyd) and the other is his kid brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) who hero-worships him. The boys represent the first UK-born generation of an Egyptian family, and are struggling to find their place in life, one because of his budding (homo)sexuality and his disillusionment with his gangsta lifestyle and the other because of his big brother's long shadow and secret life.
The film is beautiful to look at, but never precious; it won a cinematography award at Sundance, and deservedly so. Details in scenes are as lovingly captured as are nuances in the highly developed characters. The director has captured brotherly love with uncommon sensitivity, and also depicts its breakdown in a way that's as believable as it is painful to see.
I will say that the film feels so deeply considered it becomes a bit slow, and that Floyd's excellent performance nonetheless feels professional whereas many of the other actors seem to be completely untrained. The non-actors bring the film a documentary feel that occasionally bumps up against Floyd's more traditional approach.
But these are fairly minor quibbles about a film crafted with and about love.
BOY CULTURE REVIEW: ***1/2 OUT OF ****
Have you ever heard of Jobriath? I had, but only because I became friendly with photographer John Cox while working in the print porn industry (long story). Cox raves about this forgotten performer of the '70s, but every reference to him is usually derogatory—he was considered, as director Kieran Turner told us at the post-screening Q&A—a symbol of the worst of '70s music excesses. As his documentary Jobriath A.D. reveals, Jobriath was more a victim of excess—excessive PR and expectations—than he was guilty of embodying it.
Born Bruce Campbell, he renamed himself (the first of several times) Jobriath Salisbury when he moved to L.A. in the late '60s and joined the cast of Hair. Co-stars remember him as a remarkably talented pianist and lyricist who worked at music for the sheer love of it.
Jobriath was eventually signed by rock promoter Jerry Brandt (mercilessly described as handsome in a "sleazy" way, "reptilian" and a "prick" in the film; Brandt attended last night's screening). Brandt obtained tens of thousands of dollars to promote unapologetically gay Jobriath as "rock's true fairy" in mainstream magazines, on the sides of busses and even on a Times Square billboard, but all of the hype made his client the most hated debut act in history—his album tanked and in spite of grandiose plans for a rock opera and world tours, Jobriath wound up only performing a handful of times, including a widely derided appearance on The Midnight Special. (Seeing Gladys Knight awkwardly, unconvincingly introduce "Jobreath" as the future of music is priceless.)
After a second bomb album, Jobriath was dropped, hustled for a living and in the early '80s had reinvented himself as "Cole Berlin," a piano bar entertainer, before dying of AIDS in his adopted home, the Chelsea Hotel.
Jobriath A.D. is mostly a straight documentary about a person who could (should?) have been a gay icon. So many interviewees assert that Jobriath was brilliant—comparing him to Mozart, saying his music was among the best ever made—it was hard for me not to react negatively to most of the tunes played. In the same way he was hyped as an artist only to fail because of raised expectations, his existing music did not wow me as much as all the accolades from his peers moved me. I'm not a glam-rock guy, though, and it would be hard to argue that he wasn't a unique talent with or without his Lady Gaga B.C. presentation. Seeing the only known footage of him playing as Cole Berlin was much more magical for me than watching him perform as Jobriath—he was clearly a dedicated and nimble musician.
One of the most interesting things brought up in the film is a theory as to why the gay community was cool on Jobriath during his lifetime, having to do with the rise of hypermasculinity (which seems to be coming back into vogue as we speak).
What really makes Jobriath A.D. rock is the participation of Brandt, who seems to have been the heavy when it comes to dissecting why Jobriath failed so spectacularly, but whose revelatory comments serve both to damn and exculpate himself from such a distinction. For being such a "reptile," he is shown as completely warm-blooded by film's end.
The only thing I didn't care for was the film's use of animation to portray three stages of Jobriath's life. I saw what Turner was going for, but it felt unnecessary to me, with the possible exception of a sequence that allows the late singer to finally perform his proposed Paris Opera House show to great acclaim.
The message of Jobriath A.D. might be that just because someone fails, that doesn't mean their art is worthless or even that it isn't brilliant. Did Jobriath telling everyone he was gay doom him? The legendary Jaye County points out that Liberace was a mincing queen but if he'd said "I love to suck cock!" he'd have been drummed out of the business.
Either way, as Jobriath's pal Dennis Christopher (from Breaking Away) so poignantly states, "Sometimes the ground-breakers, that's all they really get to do—is break the ground."