Film Review – Jobriath A.D.
For every success story, there are a hundred others featuring failures, false starts and broken dreams. The documentary Jobriath A.D. (2012) examines a life belonging in the latter category. We’ve seen plenty of musical docs showcasing a performer who was never really appreciated during their heyday, and in some ways this film fits that mold precisely. On the surface, this doesn’t separate itself from other, better stories of musicians lost in time. But it works – sadly – in how close it’s main character came to making it big, and how far he fell from grace. The music industry is a tough, cold-blooded place to make a career, and I can only imagine the number of people who came to the big cities filled with hope, only to have it taken away from them in the blink of an eye
Jobriath (born Bruce Wayne Campbell) entered the scene in a peculiar time in history. American musical culture was shifting from the hippie style of the 60’s to more glam rock of the 70’s. What made Jobriath unique was the distinction of being the first openly gay rock star. He was an immensely talented musician, with deep influences stemming from classical music. He was touted as the “True Fairy of Rock & Roll,” with his heavy makeup, glittery costumes, and androgynous persona. But with a gay community wanting to portray a more masculine style, along with a bloated advertising campaign and a stage performance that never connected with the mainstream, Jobriath’s career ended almost as quickly as it began.
Written and directed by Kieran Turner, the film portrays Jobriath as a mystery. We learn of his childhood and his connection with his mother, his move from L.A. to New York City, and his quick rise and fall in the music industry. But between the lines lay peculiarities. He often changed his name, and gave off introverted characteristics. While he is considered the first openly gay rock star, nothing is made of his relationships with other men (or women for the matter). As flashy as his outfits and stage performances were, he kept to himself much of the time. Except for one archival interview (and the existence of his music), we never get testimony from Jobriath himself. Most of what we learn of him is taken from the recollections of his family and friends.
As much as this story is about Jobriath, a lot of it is also about his manager, Jerry Brandt. Brandt is an established name in the industry, who helped put many well-known acts on the map. But here, he is painted as the man most responsible for Jobriath’s decline. Brandt surprisingly takes much of the time as an interviewee, being candid and open about his business partnership with Jobriath. He wanted this kid to make it big, but desired to share the spotlight. On the debut album it read, “Jerry Brandt presents Jobriath.” Brandt poured his money into the marketing, plastering Jobriath’s face on billboards all over the country. He was right by Jobriath’s side whenever a picture was taken. He hyped Jobriath up to epic proportions, but forgot to do the most important thing: book gigs. By the time the country got to hear the album itself, and see Jobriath onstage for the first time (on tv’s The Midnight Special), there was already over-saturation. Luke warm reviews coupled with low sales prevented the debut from being the splash it was promoted to be.
By the time Jobriath’s second album was released, his career was pretty much over. There was no money to back it, and Brandt already distanced himself from any connection. The final act of the film has a more somber, sad tone, as we see Jobriath once again change his name and personality, achieving moderate success as a piano/lounge singer. But this feels all for naught, like a settled compromise because a bigger goal was never achieved. By this stage we were entering the 1980’s, with the AIDS epidemic sweeping the country and changing the perceptions of sex and gender roles. The early promise of child prodigy Bruce Wayne Campell was quickly snuffed out before it could be realized.
Because he’s described second-handedly (mostly from cast mates from his production of Hair), Jobriath assumes a kind of folk-legend distinction. We learn about the things he did, but we don’t penetrate into who he really was. What were his thoughts, fears, and ambitions? How did he see himself in both the music industry and within the gay community? I came away from Jobriath A.D. knowing he loved music, so much so that he was willing to become an entirely different person. But who was the true Bruce Wayne Campbell: the shimmering emblem of glam rock or the tuxedo-wearing lounge singer bearing the name Cole Berlin? If he knew his real self, why did he change identities so easily? As well made as the documentary is, there seems to be more to this story, a deeper layer that remains hidden from sight, which we may never see. That right there may be the most tragic thing of all.