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Friday, Jan. 12, 2007
'Brothers of the Head'
Freak factor turned up to 11
There's a scene near the end of the punk-rock documentary "D.O.A." where The Sex Pistols are playing a country and western ballroom in San Antonio, near the end of their ill-fated 1978 tour. The band hold the stage penned in by a baying mob, barely able to make it through their songs as the crowd pelts them with debris and hurls abuse. A dazed Sid Vicious glares at the crowd, blood pouring down his chin and chest, and proclaims "You cowboys are all a bunch of f***in' faggots!" The hall roars with the anticipatory bloodlust of a lynch mob.
Watching this scene, it's clear that nobody came to hear the music -- in fact, three out of four strings on Sid Vicious' bass were broken. The crowd -- all feather-haired chicks and mustachioed good ol' boys -- were there to gawk, jeer and abuse the alien, reviled figures on the stage. In other words, rock 'n' roll as freak show.
"Brothers of the Head," based on a 1977 book by U.K. science-fiction author Brian Aldiss, takes that idea and runs with it. Directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have fashioned a documentary about a band that never was, The Bang Bang, a 1975 proto-punk group fronted by a pair of conjoined twins.
The illusion of reality is excellent; Fulton and Pepe, documentary filmmakers by trade, know the medium well, and viewers not familiar with punk's early history would be forgiven for thinking this is an actual band they are watching, one that fell somewhere between the pub rock of Dr. Feelgood and the punk rock of The Sex Pistols. "Old" '70s-looking performance footage of the band is interspersed with sloppy cinema verite scenes of the band offstage, while "present day" interviews show those connected to the band reminiscing on its rise and fall. The fact that some of these talking heads are real people playing themselves -- like film director Ken Russell, or author Aldiss -- only adds to the verisimilitude.
The effect here is not, however, "Spinal Tap"-esque parody, but a rather more serious and disturbing affair. Fulton and Pepe, working off a script by longtime Terry Gilliam-collaborator Tony Grisoni, take a pretty dark look at rock's freak-show tendencies. While rock allows one to alchemically change from rejected misfit to adored star, the film suggests that the cathartic power of commanding the stage may be self-destructive -- think only of Sid Vicious or Pete Doherty.
Real-life twins Luke and Harry Treadaway, with the help of the makeup department, play conjoined twins Barry and Tom Howe, connected at the chest from birth. After growing up isolated from society, they are handed over -- in an almost Dickensian way -- to rock impresario Zak (Luke Wagner), a Malcolm Mclaren-like figure who seeks to milk the shock value of the boys' condition by having them front a band.
Zak installs them in his country manor and enlists a group of musicians and handlers to turn his concept into reality. Barry is told to sing and Tom learns to bash a few chords on a guitar, but when Barry refuses to cooperate, their manager Nick (Sean Harrie) slaps him around to make him get with the program. A prying documentary film crew led by Eddie Pasqua and a dodgy journalist/groupie named Laura Ashworth (Tania Emery) only add to the bad vibe, while the constant drug and alcohol abuse puts things on the brink.
The Bang Bang are finally pushed into making their debut, a pub gig with an extremely hostile audience who think the twins' deformity is a put-on. Barry loses it, and rips off his shirt, exposing the spongy blob of flesh connecting him to Tom. The band launches into a furious, rage-fueled set, and a myth is born. Very similar to what actually happened with self-willed freaks like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, Tom and Barry become a public spectacle, both adored and reviled beyond any reasonable link to what they actually do.
"Brothers of the Head" tosses around the question of exploiting deformity and -- more common in rock -- psychological instability. The Bang Bang's sponsor, Zak, glibly remarks "I never exploited anyone who didn't want to be exploited," and that's not entirely untrue. Zak finds -- much as McLaren did with the Pistols -- that the monster he's created moves beyond his control. Barry's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, even frightening, and the band too intense for the Top of the Pops mainstream success Zak had envisioned. The band's gigs -- much in the spirit of the era -- descend into random violence, amid a Voidoid-like thrash of half-formed songs.
The film's one weak point is that the band's performances are supposed to be legendary, but the intensity is somewhat shy of Rotten and company. Better is the film's "Rashomon"-like take on the band's demise; everyone has a story -- Nick, Eddie, Laura, Zak -- but none of them seem true. The negation and nihilism of early punk -- no fun, no feelings -- is rendered apparent here, with a band egged on to extremes and then left hung out to dry. When The Bang Bang's freak show goes over the top, it's just like the death of Sid Vicious: Everybody saw it coming, but nobody saw it as their fault.