Turning: Film Review

Performance film is a rock-doc for the Gender Studies crowd

Film/video experimentalist Charles Atlas crafts a feature doc from his lauded collaboration with Antony Hegarty.

NEW YORK — Striking a satisfactory balance between capturing a much-praised live performance and explaining it to outsiders, Charles Atlas's Turning focuses on a production he and songwriter Antony Hegarty debuted at the Whitney's 2004 Biennial, then presented two years later in a handful of European venues. A must-see for fans of the cult musician and a moving, if sometimes oblique, look at gender-identity issues, it will find many admirers in niche bookings.

Essentially a high-concept concert, Turning paired a conventional band performance -- albeit one showcasing Antony's immensely unconventional, tremulous voice -- with a video backdrop of superimpositions and time-delay effects by Atlas. The video was a live feed of models -- "13 remarkable women," in the songwriter's words -- who stood on a revolving platform to the side of the band. The roster included transsexuals alongside women of varying sexual orientation; some wore extravagant, even macabre costumes while others were dressed for a night on the town. Each struck a static pose for the length of a song, staring down the camera in close-up as Atlas superimposed shots from different angles and applied various effects.

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The film offers just enough complete song performances to establish what it was like to see this event in person, highlighting, for example, a lovely rendition of Antony's "Cripple and the Starfish." More often, it cuts between the stage and interviews the singer conducted with his models. One talks of a childhood in which she believed she was the only girl in the world who was attracted to girls; others, who started life as boys, recall times before and after they realized there might be a place for them in the world. Those with performance-art backgrounds allude to transgressive art shows; a fashion designer from Okinawa breaks down while describing the circle of artsy Japanese immigrants she knew in New York in 1980 -- a clique destroyed over the coming decade by AIDS.

The show's thematic concerns aren't explained by narration or onscreen titles; we don't even see the performers' names when they speak. But glimpses of backstage camaraderie and cryptic pep talks from the bandleader make it clear that Antony's aim is to champion womanhood in its infinite forms -- a kind of art-culty, chamber-pop version of Lady Gaga's all-inclusive agenda. The film hardly needs to explain themes that are hauntingly, beautifully embodied in the songs we hear throughout.

Production Company: Bullitt Film, Turning Film LLC

Director: Charles Atlas

Producers: Vibeke Vogel, Lucy Sexton

Director of photography: Gavin Elder

Music: Antony

Editor: Åsa Mossberg

No rating, 78 minutes