Directed by Kieran Turner
We might think of the 70s as having been a new era for the tolerance of homosexuality in American popular culture: men like David Bowie and Marc Bolan became full-fledged rock stars not in spite of but because of superficial, era-specific signifiers like long hair and makeup. Yet much homophobia lurked beneath such ostensible acceptance, as evidenced by the biography of a could-have-been rock n’ roll Goliath, Jobriath, whose much-ballyhooed debut and quick nosedive, chronicled in this documentary, show the perils of having been too gay—or the wrong kind of gay—in late-20th-century America.
His career began in the original LA cast of Hair (in which he played Woof, who sings the raunchy song “Sodomy”). After briefly fronting a flamboyantly show-tuney rock band, he moved to New York and hooked up with promoter extraordinaire Jerry Brandt, who would eventually leave Jobriath feeling used and abused. (Brandt defends himself throughout the film.) Before the sore feelings, Brandt undertook one of the biggest hype-building PR campaigns the city ever saw, plastering Jobriath’s body on the sides of buses and on an enormous billboard in Times Square before anyone had even heard a note of music. Her certainly out-Gabbo’ed Gabbo, but he was also promised to out-Queen Queen, to out-glam Bowie, even to be the next Greta Garbo. Then the record didn’t sell.
He once compared his gayness to James Brown’s blackness, and his flameout could be attributed both to cynicism toward the hype and a rejection of his brazen queerness. He was out of step with mainstream America, whose media treated him with no small measure of homophobia, and with gay culture, which did not embrace rock n’ roll and, at the time, was moving toward mustaches and away from glamor and effeminacy—everything Jobriath and his baroque piano rock represented. He appealed to no demographic until he reemerged years later as a tuxedoed cabaret singer, Cole Berlin, crooning Tin Pan Alley standards—that is, someone who embraced a more acceptable form of homosexuality. Soon after, he was one of the first famous-ish people to die from AIDS. “He died at the piano,” a friend says—unrecognized and unknown.
Director Kieran Turner’s feature-length portrait isn’t perfect, mostly because it features an endless stream of talking heads—friends, colleagues, admirers (he has grown into something of a cult figure; Morrissey adores him)—but offers little of Jobriath himself, the man or the music. Turner’s more likely to use “Superfly” or “Suffragette City” to establish a scene rather than one of the singer’s own tunes, which are heard only in snippets, leaving us ungrounded in the work of a semi-obscure musician with whom most audience members (like me!) will be unfamiliar. When Turner does have live footage, like a Midnight Special appearance, he quickly interrupts it with observers offering uninsightful commentary. Though he documents well just how unready the country was for an uncloseted superstar, he also marginalizes Jobriath’s actual output—much as the culture did 40 years ago.
Available on VOD and iTunes. NYC theatrical release TBD.