The story of glam rock icon Jobriath Boone is one of the most fascinating and tragic tales of the latter 20th century. A new documentary captures the man behind the masks, exploring his creative genius as well as his personal demons.
Jobriath was born Bruce Campbell in Philadelphia in 1946 into a middle-class family, one of three boys. He used a number of different names and identities, settling on "Jobriath Salisbury" in the cast of the stage musical Hair in the late 1960s, before meeting promoter Jerry Brandt and embracing the promise of music industry stardom. Along with being a gifted if unconventional songwriter, Jobriath was the first openly gay music figure in pop history, declaring himself "a true fairy" in a 1973 interview. Faced with inevitable comparisons to Bowie, complete rejection from the gay community, and accusations there was nothing behind the extreme hype (which included numerous bus ads and a massive billboard in Times Square), as well as humiliatingly low album sales and no radio hits, Jobriath retreated from the spotlight and remade himself into "Cole Berlin", performing in several successful cabaret gigs across New York before his untimely death of AIDS at the age of 36. Parts of his life served as inspiration for the 1998 glam rock-heavy filmVelvet Goldmine.
Director Kieran Turner goes straight to the source in Jobriath A.D., interviewing a number of musicians and admirers, including Marc Almond (a big Jobriath fan), Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, Okkervil River's Will Sheff, actor/performance artist Ann Magnuson, and Jake Shears of The Sister Scissors. There are also emotional remembrances from Jobriath's half-brother, former friend and Creatures cohort Marlowe B. West, and the ever-controversial Brandt. With smart narration by Henry Rollins and a series of colorful, creative animated sequences, Jobriath A.D. is a gorgeously memorable rock and roll documentary that captures a singular figure who both embodied and defied the times he lived in.
A hit across the film festival circuit the past spring and garnering internationalaccolades, Jobriath A.D.screens June 16th in Toronto, at the Canadian North by Northeast music festival, following its premiere in the city this past May at the Inside Out Festival.
Kieran Turner and I recently exchanged ideas via email about the movie and the legacy of Jobriath in popular culture.
Why Jobriath? How did you first get into his work?
I had always heard about him, though I'm too young to have been around when he was in his heyday, as I'm a huge music fan, I'm obsessed with the '70s and I'm very into GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transexual) history. But he was always portrayed as a joke or remembered as someone who was really the worst part of the wretched excess of the '70s, but with no talent to back it up. The one thing I hadn't heard was the music, so I believed it. About four years ago, I was on Amazon (shopping for music) and a compilation CD of his music which Morrissey had released on his own label was recommended to me. It was a name I hadn't heard in a while, so I decided to take a chance and buy it. After I listened to it, I thought, "Holy shit, this guy is amazing!" So I began really researching what happened to him and found his story to be fascinating, heartbreaking and incredibly compelling. If it didn't actually happen, I would have thought it was too crazy to be true. I very quickly became obsessed with telling his story, and I wanted to tell it for several reasons.
The Film Collaborative
"If Jobriath hadn't been talented, I'm not sure I'd have pushed on to make the doc," says Turner. "I'm not sure there would have been enough of a reason to tell the story in film form."
It bothered me that he was the first openly gay rock star and pretty much no one knew that or gave him credit for it. He was the groundbreaker, he took the chance and he was crucified for it. It bothers me that the GLBT community is the only minority that doesn't seem terribly interested in its cultural history. I don't mean to make such a sweeping generalization, as obviously there are people who do want to learn about what went on before them, but from what I've found, those folks are few and far between and I worry we're in danger of losing any record of our history, our achievements, mostly because it's up to us to preserve it. History books aren't going to do it. The mainstream community isn't going to do it -but enough soapboxing.
As much as this is a story for the GLBT community, it's also a story for people who love music and love to discover good music, be it from any era. It's a story for anyone who puts themselves out there, takes a chance, be it in any field, who tries to share their passions with the world and is denied because someone decides they aren't worthy for any number of arbitrary reasons. We can all relate to that.
Why did you want to include animation in Jobriath A.D.?
It started out as a combination of wanting to keep the film from being a talking-head only documentary (in order to fill in some of what we were missing in the way of archival footage). I was very concerned at the lack of material we had when we first went into this, but by the time we really got into the meat of editing, it turned out that we had unearthed some pretty rare stuff. I chose to have the animation created in several different styles in order to reflect the different personas and aliases that Jobriath took on (and shed) throughout his life. I assigned a different animator to each sequence and really considered the look of each; the Times Square one has a real Ralph Bakshi feel to it, while the Cole Berlin/AIDS piece is a sort of child-like way to show the coming of a very terrifying disease. But it was also the desire to give Jobriath his chance to finally play the Paris Opera House (which is not something those who aren't familiar with his story might understand). That was very important to me, to give him that somehow.
How did Henry Rollins become involved?
You know, we just thought of him and contacted him to see if he might be into it. I know he's the kind of guy who really champions obscure nuggets if he likes them. He wasn't super-familiar with Jobriath but liked what we showed him. And then the day we recorded, he came into the studio and all he wanted to do was talk about Jobriath. His enthusiasm was through the roof. We'd do a take and then he'd be like, "I really think the reason he didn't hit was..."
I had no idea that he was now this sort of voice-over kingpin outside of his spoken word projects, so a few days after we recorded him, I had the TV on and I kept hearing his voice.
The Film Collaborative
Jobriath performed in the West Coast production of the musical 'Hair' in the late 1960s as Woof, a character best-known for the infamous "Sodomy" song in Act One. In 1969, he left the production to form his own band, Pidgeon, who went on to release one album before disbanding.
How difficult was it to portray Jerry Brandt's role in his life? I imagine it would be very easy to cast him as a villain.
I don't think you can point to one single factor and blame Jobriath's failure on it. I think it was a perfect storm of things: the overhype, the mis-management by Jerry Brandt (however well-intentioned it was), his open sexuality, the fact that his music wasn't pop-radio friendly, that he was ahead of his time. All of these things came together and just ruined him. So to point to Jerry Brandt and say "It's all YOUR fault!" is incredibly reductive. I felt that way from the beginning and though most of the people I interviewed were not fans of Jerry and did point the finger, they were coming at it from a place of wanting to support and defend their friend, so their stake was personal. I was able to be objective about it and it was very important that I remained that way.
Why did you decide to explore Jobriath's past as Bruce Campbell only in the middle of the movie, and not the beginning?
To me, his story didn't feel linear in that he never really came out -there was nothing that lead to this big revelation that he was gay; he always just was. And so to start the story from him as a child felt, to me, forced. We know he's gay, we know he's the true fairy of rock & roll and we know he burst onto the scene as this pre-fab rock star, so why not start the film that way, with him already well on his way? The secret in his life, the thing that he kept hidden from everyone and constantly ran from, was his identity as Bruce Campbell and who his family was, so I chose to reveal that and make that the "secret," if you will, because that's how Jobriath saw it.
Why do you think Jobriath and his work were never embraced by the New York arts/fashion crowd in the 1970s and 1980s?
It's a good question and I really think that particular crowd, in ANY decade, past, present or future, likes to discover things for themselves. They like to be the ones who set trends. What they DON'T like is being told what to like. So shoving Jobriath down their throats was not going to endear him to the people who would have made him a hot commodity.
Why do you think he's a perfect artist for the 21st century?
With all of these actual pre-fab pop stars that have cropped up over the past decade who actually don't have any talent to back up their fame, I think it's time we paid attention to someone who had the goods. The music is great, the story is fascinating and he is just as compelling today as he was forty years ago. The only difference is that I think as a culture, we can now handle him. What he did then as far as coming out at the beginning of his career so flamboyantly now seems somewhat quaint in today's world, which is interesting to me, since it's not something that pop stars are making a habit of doing -coming out, that is.
The Film Collaborative
The cover shot from Jobriath's 1973 self-titled debut. In a piece from The Guardian published in March 2012, musician Marc Almond wrote that "(h)is voice had a touch of Mick Jagger at his most sluttish ... He was a mix of wide-eyed innocent and world-weary punk. And though there was a nod to Ziggy in the vowels, Bowie he was not."
What do you think Jobriath's legacy is in terms of music and performance?
Much of this is speculation on my part, but I think he was possibly an influence for some of the more theatrically pop/rock albums to come out in the late '70s, most especially Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell. I hear him all over that, but that's just my opinion. I've never had a conversation about it with Jim Steinman, but when I first hear Jobriath's two albums, it immediately brought to mind Bat Out of Hell.
Look, I'd love to say he influenced a whole generation of musicians who write piano driven pop/rock music, but it's simply not true. He's a cult figure, at best. I'd be thrilled if this documentary made more people curious about his music and he wound up being an influence for future musicians. God knows there's nothing new under the sun, so why not be influenced by someone which as much talent and creativity as Jobriath? Hell, I'd buy their records.