A long-forgotten, envelope-pushing figure of 1970s rock will be hard to forget again after “Jobriath A.D.” Kiera Turner’s portrait of the late gay glam rocker — a widely ridiculed, over-promoted commercial failure at the time — digs up plentiful archival materials and a wide range of latter-day commentators to suggest he was simply too far ahead of the curve. While the subject remains something of an enigma offstage, this absorbing and deftly crafted documentary compels interest throughout. Limited theatrical exposure is a strong possibility, home-format sales a certainty.
Fleeing humble Pennsylvania broken-family roots (and an aborted military stint) he rarely discussed later on, Bruce Campbell began his serial reinventions by running away to the circus — or rather its late-1960s equivalent, various companies that staged the rock musical “Hair.” Castmates recall “Jobriath Salisbury” dazzling everyone onstage, and with piano improvisations during rehearsal breaks. A first band built around him, Pidgeon, recorded one major-label album but quickly fell apart. It was only when he moved to Gotham in the early ’70s that his impressive vocal/instrumental chops, idiosyncratic songwriting and ethereal blond looks attracted a strong supporter in Jerry Brandt, a flashy man-about-town promoter and manager who’d already worked with several rock-world luminaries.
A colorful principal interviewee here, Brandt calls himself a “huckster” (others call him far worse) and admits his thirst for personal fame was at least the equal of his protege’s; in fact, some thought he hogged Jobriath’s spotlight. Moreover, hugely overblown publicity backfired when an eponymous 1973 album was released to zero sales.
Trusting that taking the next step beyond sexually ambiguous David Bowie would be a cinch success in an atmosphere of emerging gay lib, a miscalculating Brandt encouraged Jobriath to proclaim himself a “true fairy” and remake his flower-child image into a garish glam look resembling a proto-punk drag queen. The macho boy’s club of rock critics at the time was all too happy to dismiss the act as “packaged decadence” and “hype of the year,” while concert auds proved largely hostile to this flamboyantly out gay rocker. When a second album tanked, the label contract was not renewed, and Jobriath bitterly split from Brandt.
Having not just flopped but been labeled a phony, the performer eventually crawled back to the Big Apple and reinvented himself once again as “Cole Berlin,” crooning Tin Pan Alley classics to cabaret-circuit success. But this low-key comeback was cut short by his AIDS-related death in 1983, at age 36.
So secretive that even close colleagues never knew a thing about his love life (if there was one), Jobriath nonetheless impressed all as a genuine talent who deserved better than he got, a sentiment amplified by contempo musicians here. (It would have been nice, however, for the pic to have included a less partisan evaluation of his musicianship, perhaps by inviting some of the rock critics who once trashed him to reassess the recordings now.) There’s a wealth of archival material, from a lone national TV performance to behind-the-scenes footage of the recording of the first album. And Turner enriches an already thoughtful package’s palette with several original sequences by different animators; only one illustrating Jobriath’s press “martyrdom” strikes a heavy-handed note.
Assembly is first-rate.