The Philadelphia Premiere of the new documentary on the Philadelphia-born, King of Prussia-raised almost uncategorizable glam rocker Jobriath is happening this coming weekend as part of the Philadelphia QFest 2012. Cinedelphia recently spoke with the film’s director about his admiration for Jobriath, his approach towards documenting a virtually unknown figure, and the very important place that Jobriath holds in rock history.
CINEDELPHIA: When did you first become aware of the music of Jobriath?
KIERAN TURNER: I had always heard about him, though I’m too young to have been around when he was in his heyday. As I’m a huge music fan, I’m obsessed with the ’70s and I’m very into GLBT history. But he was always portrayed as a joke or remembered as someone who was really the worst part of the wretched excess of the ’70s, but with no talent to back it up. The one thing I hadn’t heard was the music, so I believed it. About four years ago, I was on Amazon, shopping for some music, and a compilation CD of his music which Morrissey had released on his own label was recommended to me. It was a name I hadn’t heard in a while, so I decided to take a chance and buy it. After I listened to it, I thought- “Holy shit, this guy is amazing!” So I began really researching what happened to him and found his story to be fascinating, heartbreaking and incredibly compelling. If it didn’t actually happen, I would have thought it was too crazy to be true. I very quickly became obsessed with telling his story.
As far as his music goes, I think he was incredibly talented and the music is surprisingly good, considering what I had been led to believe and it also really holds up. I respond to music in so many different ways and I love many types of music. With Jobriath, I just thought he had a style I hadn’t really come across much, and certainly not in anything that had really come before him, though I do hear a lot of his style in Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, which is very much a theatrical album, but doesn’t have the airy spaciness of Jobriath. I also hear him in contemporary musicians such as Rufus Wainwright and John Grant, certainly in that they are openly gay piano-driven musicians, though Wainwright and Grant are more direct, lyrically, in the things they’re singing about. Jobriath did it to a point, but a lot of his songs are somewhat obscured by particular imagery he conjures in his lyrics that are very much of that time. On the one hand, you can find yourself caught up in it, but it’s also easy to say “What the hell is he talking about?”
KT: Of course, yes. It bothered me that he was the first openly gay rock star and pretty much no one knew that or gave him credit for it. He was the groundbreaker, he took the chance and he was crucified for it. It bothers me that the GLBT community is the only minority that doesn’t seem terribly interested in its cultural history. I don’t mean to make such a sweeping generalization, as obviously there are people who do want to learn about what went on before them, but from what I’ve found, those folks are few and far between and I worry we’re in danger of losing any record of our history, our achievements, mostly because it’s up to us to preserve it. History books aren’t going to do it. The mainstream community isn’t going to do it.
But enough soapboxing- If Jobriath hadn’t been talented, I am not sure I’d have pushed on to make the doc. I’m not sure there would have been enough of a reason to tell the story in film form. And as much as this is a story for the GLBT community, it’s also a story for people who love music and love to discover good music, be it from any era. And it’s also a story for anyone who puts themselves out there, takes a chance, be it in any field, who tries to share their passions with the world and were denied because someone decided they weren’t worthy for any number of arbitrary reasons. We can all relate to that.
C: Were you at all hesitant about dedicating such a large portion of your time to such a niche topic?
KT: Good question. I felt that the story, first and foremost, was compelling enough to garner an audience. I knew the music was something that was totally niche and it would never appeal to everyone, but of course, nothing appeals to everyone. I think you can’t go into something like this expecting it to be a big hit or super popular or something that will bring in the masses. You have to really believe in what you’re doing and do it to the best of your ability. I was so passionate about this project, about telling Jobriath’s story, about getting people to hear the music, that for me, if five new people became Jobriath fans or understood why he was someone who needed to be remembered, and they told people and those people told people, however many people this story, this music touched, then how could I ask for more? I think if you really believe in what you’re doing, you’ll find an audience. How big that audience will be…
KT: It was something of a failure, but I blame me, not the process. I asked for too much money, I was unwilling to put out any footage at the time and I wasn’t well connected enough in terms of knowing enough people. I definitely think the system of raising money this way is flawed and has room for improvement, but I take the blame completely. I had hopes of raising money through grants or private investors, but the bulk of the financing came from my own pocket and I think in the back of my mind, I knew it was going to fall out that way, which is part of why it took me four years to finish the film. While my mother would prefer I actually had savings and security in the bank, I felt like this was an investment I wanted to make, in terms of helping tell a story from my cultural history and in myself as a filmmaker. This was an incredibly rewarding experience for me and I feel very lucky that I was the person who got to tell this story.
C: Were Jobriath’s friends, family, and admirers anxious to speak about him on camera?
KT: It varied. Some were more reluctant than others to share certain stories, which I did my best to respect. However some of those people would then tell me the stories the minute the cameras were turned off which infuriated me. To tell the story on-camera is preserving the history of Jobriath. To whisper it in my ear is just gossip. I wasn’t interested in gossip. I was interested in setting the record straight and telling the story as truthfully as possible.
Jerry was very cooperative. I saved him until I had done several more peripheral interviews so that I could get some practice in, since this was my first documentary and I had never done anything like this before. So when I got to him, I felt more comfortable, certainly more confident and knowledgeable and I was willing and ready to challenge him, and boy, did I. And he liked that and it made for a very electric two days. Jerry is a character, plain and simple. The movie is almost as much about him, at least in terms of his and Jobriath’s relationship and motivations.
KT: Yes and yes. In terms of people from Jobriath’s life, there were a few people I simply could not find, despite my best efforts. And it was a difficult and lengthy process because Jobriath, as you see in the film, was someone who shed and adopted different personalities and personas with some regularity and when he’d do this, he tended to drop several of the people in his life and pick up a new set, so when I would sit down with someone, they would only really be able to speak about a specific period of Jobriath’s life. So in a way, it was almost like making five or so mini documentaries. I don’t believe there was anyone who knew him who declined to speak with me.
In terms of musicians, sure there were several who declined (or whose managers declined for them) for one reason or another. We approached Morrissey a few times through different avenues and were always told no. With him and with the ways we went in, I absolutely believe the “no” was coming from him as opposed to representation. I harbor no ill will towards anyone who truly did not want to participate.
C: One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the wealth of archive footage that you assembled. This isn’t footage that you can just pull up on YouTube…
KT: It was a long, drawn out process and the thing I was most concerned about because going in, I knew there wasn’t much and I was terrified of making a talking head-only documentary. So I devised a few distractions away from that, some of which stayed (the animation) and some of which fell by the wayside as soon as I realized we would have more than enough material to tell the story. Personally, I love the thrill of the search and the discovery. I feel like after this, I could actually become a private investigator as a sideline. Or write a TV pilot: filmmaker by day, finder of lost loves by night.
KT: I did an early interview with someone around the time of the film’s world premiere who told me that he sat down to watch the film with his wife, who did not like Jobriath’s music and was skeptical of a documentary made about him. Fair enough; I’ve had those same doubts and fears and I’ve also seen films where I just wasn’t buying it and sat with my arms folded and a sneer on my face through the whole thing. But he told me that she was so taken with the story and the life Jobriath lived that she was able to separate her dislike of the music from the admiration she felt for him as a person and her absorption into the story. I took a huge relieved breath after hearing that.
As I mentioned before, all I want, all I ever wanted, from this film was to make more people aware that this amazing, truly incredible, talented, innovative creature existed. For his music, for his being, for his groundbreaking efforts. He tried, he failed in many ways, but really, he must be remembered and his story is unforgettable.
Jobriath A.D. screens this Saturday, July 14 at 2:30 PM, and Sunday, July 15 at 9:30 PM as part of the Philadelphia QFest 2012.