An exotic fixture of 1980s London clubland, Leigh Bowery has been given posthumous exposure in the U.S. via the Rosie O'Donnell-produced Broadway musical, "Taboo." A more thorough consideration of the fashion designer and performance artist can be found in videomaker Charles Atlas' feature documentary, "The Legend of Leigh Bowery." An engrossingly detailed if perhaps inevitably enigmatic portrait of the elusive, outrageous provocateur -- given his devotion to artifice -- the film's main commercial avenue will be the DVD market.

An exotic fixture of 1980s London clubland, Leigh Bowery has been given posthumous exposure in the U.S. via the Rosie O’Donnell-produced Broadway musical, “Taboo.” A more thorough consideration of the fashion designer and performance artist, who positioned himself as a living artwork and who died of AIDS in 1994 at age 33, can be found in videomaker Charles Atlas’ feature documentary, “The Legend of Leigh Bowery.” An engrossingly detailed if perhaps inevitably enigmatic portrait of the elusive, outrageous provocateur — given his devotion to artifice — the film’s main commercial avenue will be the DVD market.

Doc has been playing to steady business on a single New York screen since Nov. 28, and while Palm Pictures is planning to expand to a handful of other key cities, the distrib’s chief plans center on DVD release in mid-2004, with extensive additional interviews and extra archive footage of Bowery to be included.

Born to a conservative, religious family in a working-class, Australian industrial community, Bowery discovered his sexuality at a young age — reportedly saying that a high school uniform was the greatest tool for attracting men — and his calling for fashion soon after. He fled to London as punk was evolving into the more flamboyant neo-romantic period, and quickly gained notoriety through his exhibitionistic entrances and exits from the hippest clubs and his increasingly twisted costumes, reaching a peak with the weekly Taboo clubnight, which he co-founded.

Not a traditional drag queen, Bowery sported costumes both flagrantly sexual and oddly asexual, frequently faceless or even headless. His androgynous, freakishly shape-altering creations were both humorous and disturbing — and often most uncomfortable for a night of clubbing. That element of masochism emerged more explicitly in his performance art.

Bowery’s transition from club icon to artist began with his costume designs (described as “impossible but genius” by one dancer) for Michael Clarke’s modern dance company. Clarke eventually coaxed out the latent performer in Bowery, encouraging him to participate in dance recitals in which his larger-than-life physical presence was greeted as an audacious eccentricity by some and an anarchic intrusion by others.

His ultimate legitimization as an artist came with an exhibit in which Bowery installed himself behind glass at a London gallery, preening on a couch all day in different outfits. This aspect of Bowery transforming himself into a zoo creature is a clear theme, as is his lack of interest in commercializing his designs. Despite the considerable work involved, Bowery showed complete disdain for the idea of his clothes being worn by anyone else. In this sense, Atlas’ doc argues he was the purest form of artist, concerned only with inspiration.

Bowery’s performance work is well documented, including drag trio Raw Sewage and his band Minty, with frequent collaborator Richard Torry. That group reached its zenith when Bowery gave “birth” onstage to the blood-smeared nude body of his assistant Nicola, whom he later married.

Perhaps the most arresting section of the film deals with the series of portraits done of Bowery by Lucian Freud, who painted the performance artist as an obese, inelegant figure, naked yet never entirely stripped of his mask. The paintings are considered among Freud’s best work and among the most striking images of the period.

Maintaining an anonymous, fairly straightforward style and an approach both affectionate yet detached, Atlas assembles the wealth of filmed material and photographs — notably the series taken by Fergus Greer — with illuminating interviews from Bowery’s friends, associates and family. These include Boy George, who plays the late cult figure in the Broadway show.

The Legend of Leigh Bowery

Docu - France-U.S.

Production

A Palm Pictures release of an INA, Atlas Films NY, Arte France production in association with BBC, Centre National de la Cinematographie. Produced by Lucy Sexton. Executive producer, Sylvie Blum. Directed by Charles Atlas.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Jens Tang, Mike Nicholls; editor, Tang; music, Leigh Bowery, Richard Torry, Minty and others; sound, John Avery, Ric Creaser; associate producer, Katherine Copeland; interviewers, Atlas, Sexton; researcher, Jane Bridgeman. Reviewed at Cinema Village, New York, Dec. 7, 2003. Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Boy George, Damien Hirst, Bella Freud, Michael Clark, Rifat Ozbek, Cerith Wyn Evans, Norman Rosenthal, Nicola Bowery, Sue Tilley, Rachel Auburn, Bronwyn Bowery, Tom Bowery, Michael Bracewell, Les Child, Sophie Fiennes, David Holah, Lorcan O'Neill, Richard Torry, Donald Urquhart.
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