I’m a man
So I’m an elegant man
I’m a man
Clara bows and open toes
Are what I am
I’d never even heard of Jobriath, a stunningly talented glam rock star who burst upon the scene in the early seventies, and disappeared after only a few years. This documentary is a tragic story of glitter and glamour and impossible dreams, and a culture that was still not ready to accept an openly gay rock star.
Jobriath—who went by many names throughout his career, but started his life as one Bruce Campbell, from King of Prussia (really, that’s the town’s name), Pennsylvania—got started in show business as a performer in Hair; angelically beautiful, already an accomplished singer, songwriter, dancer, and musician, he wowed everyone with his looks, charisma and talent. When the show closed he moved on to sing with a Prog Rock band called Pidgeon which only produced one record. A few years later he was discovered by superstar manager Jerry Brandt, who decided to take a chance on this strange, otherworldly creature.
There followed an intense publicity campaign: Jobriath’s face was on buses, in magazines, and on a huge billboard overlooking Times Square. He was so overhyped, in fact, that critics were ready to hate him before they even heard one note of his songs. When his self-titled debut album came out in 1973, the general reaction was either bafflement at the bizarre, eclectic music, or a vicious backlash that was was at least partly based on homophobia. The problem was that Jobriath was the first openly gay rock star, and America was just not ready for that. Big names like David Bowie could present androgynous personas, or drop coy hints about their sexuality. But to be openly, unapologetically gay? That was career suicide in 1973.
Interestingly, the gay press didn’t defend him; gay culture at the time was shifting towards clones and hypermasculinity, and they had no interest in (a) rock, or (b) androgynous rock stars. Though a few reviews were positive, album sales were dismal.
Brandt struggled to keep promoting him; a backing band was formed and they toured, but in the end it was only a couple of clubs instead of a grand spectacle at the Paris Opera House. Jobriath was crushed, after the second album came out to equally horrible sales, Brandt dropped him.
On his own, Jobriath moved into the Chelsea Hotel and reinvented himself as a cabaret singer—his first love had always been the piano—gaining a small but steady following. He also composed songs and numbers for various theatrical productions around town.
Jobriath died of AIDS in 1983, sitting at his piano. His body was reportedly not found for four days, a tragic end to a groundbreakingly creative man. He deserved so much more.
The film concludes with an animation of the planned Paris Opera House show. It starts with Jobriath climbing a scale model of the Empire State Building dressed as King Kong, swatting down some fighter planes, then transforming into Marlene Dietrich while the Empire State Building transforms into a giant penis. Crazy and over-the-top, right? Still, who knows? If there’s enough interest in Jobriath’s art and too-brief career, maybe it could get done someday. It would certainly be a fitting tribute.