Director: Todd Stephens
Stars: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans
From his early Euro heartthrob days, through those incendiary Andy Warhol exploitation flicks, Argento’s Suspiria and beyond, Udo Kier has always been an icon. With well over 200 film credits to his name, these days he’s most bankable for archly memorable supporting performances, adding a unique flavour to the pictures he appears in. Think the profoundly upset wedding planner from Melancholia, or his human game hunter in Bacurau. A performer without pretention or snobbery, Kier is the consummate professional. A living legend rarely afforded a starring role.
Todd Stephens’ glorious (and gloriously inelegant) Swan Song goes some way to rectifying that in splendiferous style. Though it unfurls itself gradually, opening up like a tender rose.
Kier inhabits doddering former beautician and local queer treasure Pat Pitsenbarger; a shadow of his former self, glassy-eyed and confined to a nursing home. Pat is effectively waiting it out, retired in every sense imaginable. A late acquaintance, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), names him in her will, requesting his services for her final, funereal makeover. Initially dismissive, the call to arms prompts in Pat a slow-burn resurrection. Absconding from his confinement with only his rings and sweatpants, Pat heads back into Sandusky, Ohio on one last hustle.
Swan Song requires patience. Stephens ensures that the opening stretch at the nursing home is drab, ugly; a stuttering start. Jerky slow-motion is falsely suggestive of incompetence on his part, or pitiable cheapness, when instead it resonates with Pat’s semi-comatose slumber. A boldly deliberate gamble. Over the course of the following 90 minutes, the film finds its colour, as Pat does.
His legacy is not as forgotten as he initially assumes. Shuffling at an appropriately elderly pace, Pat’s resolve is initially challenged by the evident economic downturn of the middle-America town he once ruled. But people remember him, and their affection helps generate in him a rebirth. Kindness and Pat’s own rascal light fingers gradually enable a transformation from Cocoon background artist to pastel-hued glamourpuss. Kier lights up in keeping with this granular resurrection, injecting increasing sparkle into his mannerisms, his eyes.
Chris Stephens’ score works a fine line between indulgently deployed melodrama (Hallmark movie piano plonks) and ruefully feathered electric guitars that add a sun-blushed haze; evoking time past – and lost – and forgotten memories remembered. Swan Song is a phoenix story. Though Pat’s journey ultimately leads him to a confrontation with death – the corpse of his old friend – he arrives there with more life than we’ve seen in him over Stephens’ judiciously assembled journey. Kier’s calibration of this return is flawless.
Along the way Pat – and the film – address legacies of queerness within society. The changing ways in which gay men have been perceived, reviled and accepted. Witnessing two men with their children playing in the park, Pat notes wryly that he wouldn’t know how to be a gay man now. It’s a remark shrouded in cattiness and mockery, but it belies a loaded and lived-in history of existing against the status quo. In this moment, Pat reveals just a shard of his troubled past, but it’s telling nonetheless. See, also, the ways in which the narrative weaves in the tragic story of his deceased partner David. The circumstances of his passing coyly acknowledging the horrific role AIDS has had in the gay community.
Source music choices are sensational, with modern pop bangers (Amerie’s “1 Thing”, Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”) and iconic gay anthems (Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud”) presented front and centre in the mix, to more obscure yet delectable cuts woven into the background (Cindy Wilson’s glittering cover of Broadcast’s “Corporeal”). Through these choice cuts, Stephens tips his hat to the importance pop music has had to gay culture over the decades. The healing and empowerment attained through song and dance, and how these acts of play and performance are intrinsically connected to this lifestyle. Swan Song reaches a joyous apex when, revived from his doldrums, Pat takes to the stage at a local bar. He sissies that walk like a Drag Race finalist.
Irrespective of Kier’s own sexuality (I’ve no idea and it’s no business of mine anyway), Swan Song feels like an exceedingly apt love letter to its star’s idiosyncratic craft and droll mannerisms. Because the film charts a slow transformation, we’re invited to spend time with a number of different Kiers. Some recognisable from other performances over the years, others entirely new. And while the likes of the great Jennifer Coolidge provide scattered support, this is Kier’s picture through and through. It’s lowkey great being afforded so much time with him, when he’s so often just a sideline element of zest. Swan Song goes to show that he can hold his own, maintain and pitch a performance so that it doesn’t overpower.
Pat Pitsenbarger was a genuine figure, and Stephens has created a prickly yet loving ode to his legacy. A decidedly local celebrity, Stephens and Kier have enlarged his reach. Something the man would have no doubt found absolutely fabulous. Persevere through it’s meagre beginnings and you’ll be richly rewarded.