This year has seen an astonishing wealth of concert films. The bands Phish and Barenaked Ladies were the focus of concert documentaries, while the performers Anna Deveare Smith, David Drake, Margaret Cho, and the self-knighted Original Kings of Comedy enjoyed filmed records of their successful stage performances. However, the hands-down concert film supreme of 2000 is John T. Ryan’s “Freaks, Glam Gods and Rock Stars,” an adrenaline-pumping, acoustically hypnotic celebration of New York’s wild underground music scene.
Beginning with an ethereal ærial shot of New York’s fabled skyline at night, “Freaks, Glam Gods and Rock Stars” swoops down across the stages of the clubs, bars and concerts which bring the likes of the Toilet Boys, BOOB!, Luna Chicks and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black into the eyes and ears of those seeking relief from the monotony of MTV and Top 40 radio. Director Ryan brilliantly criss-crosses through a netherworld of iconoclastic artists who stretch the musical, linguistic and æsthetic boundaries into fields of raw emotion and devastating humor in their performances.
Among the memorable characters featured here are Zane Fixx of the group Starr, who relates in a thick Noo Yawk accent his negative feelings toward Steve Tyler and insight on how he runs a trucking business when not in performance; the drummer D.W. Friend of the group Brickbats, an Alice Cooper lookalike who sheepishly acknowledges a day job as a grade school teacher; Kevin Aviance, an acutely-extroverted African-American cross-dresser who throws a power plant-worth of energy into his stylish shows; and excessively handsome actor/model Donovan Leitch, who turns positively feral when singing with his group Nancy Boy. The film’s highlight is clearly the Nancy Boy performance of “Placebo,” which is magnificently photographed in an eerie monochrome and edited with a peerless magic that achieves a technical and artistic apotheosis which few concert films could ever dream of reaching.
Perhaps the funniest sequence in “Freaks, Glam Gods and Rock Stars” is devoted to a very unlikely star: The “Lady” Bunny, a rather hefty drag performer specializing in off-color parodies of “La Vida Loca” and, of all things, Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” The “lady” is also treated to a hilarious montage of comments from fans who offer an excess of catty commentary on his/her vain attempt to maintain an illusion of youth!
Yet for all of the in-your-face attitude and throbbing hedonistic rock music, “Freaks, Glam Gods and Rock Stars” anchors the viewer back to earth with a numbing montage which asks the performers if they can support themselves full-time on their music. The answer is an overwhelming no–not surprising, all things considered, yet there is an extraordinary sense of brutal honesty in the moments when the musicians ruefully acknowledge traditional daytime sources of income. In a scene which thrives on style, this unexpected display of emotional substance comes as a jolt.
“Freaks, Glam Gods and Rock Stars” is a soaring triumph of sound and spirit which literally redefines the standards on how a concert film should be made. Bravo to John T. Ryan on this amazing musical and cinematic tour de force.