Vancouver Queer Film Festival's Jobriath A.D. beguiled by true fairy of rock ‘n’ roll
The documentaryJobriath A.D. is an intriguing choice for the 24th Vancouver Queer Film Festival, and not just because the story of the “true fairy of rock ’n’ roll”—as Jobriath’s manager, Jerry Brandt, dubbed him—is so insanely tragic. To this day, you’d hardly call the super-flamboyant glam rocker a gay icon, and he was equally despised and rejected by both straight rock fans and the queer community when his first self-titled album was released in 1973.
“Just personally, that was the biggest question that I needed answered for myself,” director Kieran Turner says, talking to the Georgia Straight from a hotel room in Austin, Texas. “I wasn’t around back then, but I’m very interested in GLBT history, and to me it seemed like it was only four years post-Stonewall, and, you know, drag queens came and led the march. You would have really thought that somebody like Jobriath would have been the toast o’ the town, you know what I mean? I really wanted to know why the gay community didn’t have him on their shoulders and weren’t parading him around.”
Turner found his answer, but first some history: born in Philadelphia, Bruce Wayne Campbell was prodigiously talented from the outset. His star quality is screamingly obvious in footage of Campbell in the studio and in the L.A. cast of Hair, which he joined after going AWOL from the army in the late ’60s and changing his name—it wouldn’t be the last time he took on a new identity—to Jobriath Boone.
In glam rock–era New York, he was mentored by Brandt, Carly Simon’s manager, who was bent on adopting the Bowie model and trumpeting his client’s superstardom before anybody had heard a single lick of music. A billboard in Times Square famously announced Jobriath’s arrival—or not so famously, as the case may be. Turner agrees that it sometimes seems as if the epic embarrassment that followed had the effect of erasing Jobriath from history.
“I couldn’t even find a photograph of the billboard other than the little crappy one that we feature in the movie, which was from Billboard magazine,” he says, adding that he spent 14 months prior to shooting just searching for enough material to justify the project. “Every little fucking Super-8 clip that some tourist shot and threw up on YouTube, I watched. I ran across the billboard for King Kong and The Wiz many times, but never Jobriath.”
Miraculously, Turner did manage to find some delicious archival footage, including an NBC interview with both Jobriath and Brandt that does much to illuminate their unconventional and ultimately catastrophic partnership. “I was on the floor, I was so excited,” Turner says of the clip, which also included 10 minutes of Jobriath’s band the Creatures rehearsing for a show at the Troubadour club in L.A. “I was very worried at the beginning that this was just going to be talking head after talking head after talking head.”
Jobriath A.D. is more than that, but the talking heads still have plenty to offer. Turner rounded up fans like Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters, along with the people who were there: Elektra Records head Jac Holzman, legendary producer Eddie Kramer, members of the Creatures, friends, family, and the ever-fascinating Brandt himself. “Sexy and slimy all at once,” is how Brandt is remembered by one of Jobriath’s old running partners, and not too much has changed.
“I find it difficult to boil Jerry down,” Turner offers with a soft chuckle. “As transparent as he is, that’s how complicated he can be, as well.” Brandt emerges as a weirdly charming, often reptilian mess of contradictions who “always ends up revealing the truth one way or another”, as Turner notes. “He couldn’t help himself. I loved that about him.”
The man has good reason to at least attempt to minimize some of the guilt he, presumably, carries. For either love or money, Brandt misjudged the public mood and massively oversold his product, guaranteeing the instant skepticism of listeners. Plus, the timing couldn’t have been worse. As Okkervil River’s Will Sheff remarks of “Take Me I’m Yours”, the opening track on the debut solo album, Jobriath: “The whole world is waiting for this big star, and the first thing they hear is a gay S & M anthem.”
As for Jobriath’s presumptive audience of nonhomophobes, they hated him too. “Effeminacy was on its way out,” shrugs Bowie cohort Tony Zanetta, who remembers the sniffy reaction of the “New York cognoscenti” as something like, “Well, who is she?” Says Turner: “It was a big shock to talk to every single gay man that I did talk to, who was around back then, who all told me the same thing: that they were so threatened by this very effeminate creature.”
Jobriath tanked, and so did the follow-up, Creatures of the Street. Brandt’s demented plans of a live debut at the Paris Opera House, in which Jobriath would slide down an enormous cock dressed as both King Kong and Marlene Dietrich went unrealized. The band toured to hostile audiences across the States until their frontman retreated to his mother’s house, humiliated almost beyond repair. He turned to hustling and died from an AIDS-related illness in New York in 1983.
There’s a third act to all of this: In his last few years, Jobriath moved into the pyramid-shaped loft on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel and morphed into nightclub entertainer Cole Berlin. Turner was excited to discover that, contrary to the myth, Cole Berlin had a growing reputation in the Big Apple. “I was so relieved to find out that he wasn’t a failure as Cole Berlin and that I was able to find people, finally, who were able to tell me that things actually were good,” he says. “If I hadn’t, it was, like, ‘Oh, he failed at this, he failed at this, he failed at this, and then he died.’ ”
Perhaps more significantly, Jobriath’s reputation has been salvaged in the past decade by music fans. If it’s the story of disaster on an operatic scale that initially draws people in, the quality of Jobriath’s highly literate songs—a unique alloy of rock, cabaret, and Broadway—closes the deal. “If Jobriath had no talent and just happened to be the first openly gay rock star, I wouldn’t have made the movie,” Turner says. “But I think it goes beyond that.”
The irony is that it was mainly a constituency of straight record collectors who eventually flew the flag for the true fairy of rock ’n’ roll. Turner wonders, given the film’s reception at the London and San Francisco queer film festivals, if the LGBT community is finally giving the man his due. “I loved that this wonderful, political, gay audience understood why a movie needed to be made about him,” Turner says of the SF screening. “And, no, he’s not a gay icon yet, but I think he could be, and he should be. Because he kicked the door open, and like [actor] Dennis Christopher says in the film, ‘Sometimes the groundbreakers, that’s all they get to do, is break the ground.’ I think it really sums Jobriath up.”
Watch the trailer for Jobriath A.D..