At a time when the men of glam exemplified androgyny, Jobriath was openly gay (and not bisexual as David Bowie and Lou Reed would describe themselves*).
It wasn't an act—not that theatricality wasn't part of that world, but walking it like you talked in the 1970s was a whole 'nother thing; one fraught with personal danger and commercial risk.
Kieran Turner begins his portrait of the classically-trained musician with the debut of the counterculture musical Hair in 1968, in which Jobriath, leader of the now-forgotten rock band Pidgeon, made up part of the Los Angeles cast alongside Gloria Jones, who appears in the film (and in 20 Feet from Stardom). Friends, like GTO member Miss Mercy, remember his talent, his charisma, and his manic drive.
* Or as others would describe them. Reed was cagier than Bowie when it came to categorization.
The Midnight Special wouldn't let Jobriath perform his S&M number, "Take Me I'm Yours."
If Hair became a hit, Pidgeon didn't follow suit, so Jobriath moved to New York to pursue a solo career. In short order, he found a manager in Jerry Brandt, a dead ringer for Peter Gallagher circa The Idolmaker. Says Brandt, "He could write, he could sing, and he could dance," and so Brandt hyped the hell out of him. The billboard-and-bus approach backfired, though it's hard not to admire the way they made no attempt to hide Jobriath's sexual orientation. Said the artist at the time, "Asking me if I’m homosexual is like asking James Brown if he's black."
Only after establishing his public persona does Turner reveal details about his subject's childhood. If it comes as little surprise to find that Jobriath wasn't his given name, he had a strong sense of self from the start. In that respect—shaking off the past in order to become his authentic self—he recalls Warhol superstar Candy Darling, who inspired Reed's "Take a Walk on the Wild Side."
As Jobriath records his self-titled debut album in the film, it isn't hard to understand his appeal to men, to women, and to the musicians of today. The fans and critics of 1973, however, were a different story, and his records didn't sell. If I had heard his songs on the radio around the time I first discovered Bowie, Queen, and Elton John, I might have picked up his albums, too, but I didn't.
Jobriath in his Hair days (he played Woof, singer of "Sodomy") / The Film Collaborative
Had Jobriath stuck it out, the times might have caught up with him, but Elektra gave up on him after his second LP, 1975's Creatures of the Street, he and Brandt went their separate ways, and a few years later, he reemerged as a cabaret performer, his final musical configuration. Turner doesn't push the allusions too hard, but it's hard not to see traces of Icarus (Brandt as Daedalus), Frankenstein (Jobriath as the monster), and Svengali (Jobriath as Trilby) in their relationship.
I expected a parade of stars to sing his praises during the film, and Turner has delivered a few, but they aren’t necessarily the ones I would've predicted. Jake Shears and Jayne County? Sure, but I didn't know that actor Dennis Christopher was a friend or that Def Leppard's Joe Elliot and Okkervil River's Will Sheff were fans—and yes, that's Richard Gere singing backup on his debut. But Morrissey is notable by his absence; I'll assume he was working on his memoir during filming.
I also have mixed feelings about the animation, which feels extraneous, and Henry Rollins seems like an odd choice for narrator, but Turner otherwise does right by his subject, who died in 1983 just as Britain's New Romantics were taking his looks, his moves, and even his ideas to the top of the charts.