By Brian Belovarac
Brothers of the Head, the 2005 film described by more than one reviewer as a cult film waiting to happen, arrived hot on the platform heels of Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was certainly a change of pace for directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who had earned acclaim for Lost in La Mancha, their 2002 documentary about filmmaker Terry Gilliam.
Their new film was a faux documentary about a doomed mid-’70s UK glam/punk act led by conjoined twins, told via supposedly vintage verité footage, contemporary interviews with the surviving participants, and, lofting the already high concept to Icarus-level, scenes from an abandoned bio-pic allegedly directed by Ken Russell. While its turn-of-the-millennium brethren have gone on to inspire graduate theses, special edition Blu-rays and years of cross-generational adoration, Brothers of the Head remains the runt of the (g)litter, its cult as-yet unformed. Regardless, the film is a fascinating curio, worthy of reinvestigation for its immaculate period recreations, unsettling mood and subtle queering of the standard rise-and-fall rock narrative.
“It’s really about the innocence and loss of innocence,” says (the real) Ken Russell at the beginning, describing what attracted him to the story of Tom and Barry Howe (played by real-life twins Harry and Luke Treadaway), conjoined brothers sold to a music biz impresario, who whisks them away to a secluded country house in order to mold them into the Bang Bang, a transgressive novelty act aimed at an audience raised on Bowie and the Bay City Rollers. Russell’s bald thematic declaration for his fictional project must be taken facetiously, since the film that follows doesn’t elaborate on it, but rather explores more familiar ideas – the exploitation of difference, the destructive co-dependency of the collaborative process and how love, and the music biz, can tear us apart.
It’s in the details, however, that the film lives and thrives, framing itself as a series of pop culture readymades rescued from the dustbin of history. The verité footage that makes up the bulk of the film – supposedly shot by Pennebaker acolyte “Eddie Pasqua,” who is shown viewing reels of film on an editing machine, hypocritically criticizing the ethically questionable nature of the enterprise he was hired to record – is dead-on in its graininess and intrusiveness, capturing repetitive rehearsal sessions and incendiary live performances as well as darker moments of violence, drug abuse and sexual jealousy between the twins. The footage we see from Two Way Romeo, the fictional Ken Russell film about the pair, is appropriately phantasmagorical and excessive, complete with the artistic liberty of a “third twin,” depicted as an Altered States primordial lump. And the Bang Bang’s music – original songs by Madness/Costello/Dexys producer Clive Langer – strikes a nice balance between the suggestive decadence of glam (“Bending the rules / touching the tools”) and the rush of early punk.
It’s also in these details that the more subtle aspects of the film, and the filmmakers’ approach to their narrative, come through. Unlike Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig, Brothers is not an explicitly queer work – indeed, its main plot device, a female journalist who ends up breaking up both the boys and the band, is a variation on a tired cliché – but there are hints in the margins of a more complicated view of sexual identity. Literally joined at the hip, Tom and Barry frequently play up the homoerotic nature of their bond for the camera, whether it’s snogging each other during a photo shoot or suggestively revealing the physical proof of their bond to a crowd taunting them as a pair of “queer wankers.” For Tom, who quickly loses himself in a heterosexual affair, this all seems to be part of the show; for Barry, who is seen kissing another man in the corner of the frame during a post-show party, and who is described by more than one onlooker as “always holding something back,” there are intimations that these acts may not be purely performative. Fulton and Pepe – partners in life as well as in film – keep things vague, never coding one brother as straight and the other as gay, instead maintaining a tension that serves as an appropriately ambiguous mirror of the sexual fluidity that marked the glam era, as well as the lines it blurred between queerness as a genuine personal expression and a coy, marketable tease.
By the end of the film, this tension has destroyed the twins, exploding in a mysterious, violent incident that sends the pair back to their childhood home, where they are [SPOILER ALERT] discovered huddled together in death by their sister. And despite the trove of material we’ve just seen and heard – the demos, the rehearsals, the unreleased album, the 16mm reels, the bits of Super-8 shot by the twins and the reflective, regretful interviews filmed in the present day – we’re still left without clarity. It’s a nostalgia trip that presents the past as something forever lost, an approach that echoes the archival trawls of Velvet Goldmine and recurs in 2008’s Flashbacks of a Fool, a late-arriving coda to the glam genre in which an unhappy actor played by Daniel Craig recalls deliriously lip-synching to Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” in a girlfriend’s living room as a brief moment of happiness before adulthood and the real world set in.
If Velvet Goldmine explores how glam functioned as a place of self-determination for queer youth after the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and Hedwig shows how the music’s influence crossed borders and carried over into the conservative clampdown of the 1980s, Brothers of the Head positions the genre as an archaeological site whose artifacts will never fully reveal the mysteries of its creators, no matter how many times they are dug up, revisited and repackaged, whether as rock docs, bio-pics or retrospective box sets. But, as the film also shows, there can still be a thrill in the digging.