Jobriath A.D.: Film Review

Eye-opener introduces a glam rocker who should be a better known part of pop history

The would-be "American Bowie" gets his due in Kieran Turner's sympathetic doc.

Openly, outrageously gay at a moment when pop music seemed just about ready to accept that, the artist once known as Jobriath was hard to miss in 1972: Reputed to have signed for a record-making half-million dollars, he was hyped to an extent even New York City found shocking. He failed, was forgotten, and died just a decade later. Kieran Turner's Jobriath A.D. celebrates an artist who influenced more performers than this flame-out narrative would suggest, finding the man behind the caricature and rustling up interest in his slim recorded legacy. Though more musically valuable than most docs about well-known stars, the film is a niche entry that will do most of its business on VOD.

Born Bruce Wayne Campbell, the singer had rechristened himself Jobriath Salisbury by the time he unexpectedly landed a part in the Los Angeles production of Hair; costars in the play remember a boy of abundant sexual charisma and talent who was nevertheless reticent about the details of his love life. After recording something of a rock opera with a group called Pidgeon and getting nowhere, the singer met manager and impresario Jerry Brandt, a reptilian hustler who seems to have thought he hit a gold mine.

Brandt comes across as part believer in his client's talent, part manipulator, heavy on the latter: He leveraged whatever money Elektra Records actually spent for Jobraith's first LP into an avalanche of full-page magazine ads, placards on city buses, and a Times Square billboard; he encouraged Jobriath to say dumb things to the press and plan ridiculous stage shows. (The singer took plenty of heat for dissing gender-bender David Bowie by boasting "I'm a true fairy.") Tastemakers were ready to backlash before the record even came out; it was greeted by lousy reviews and sales to match.

Though Turner finds an interesting assortment of songwriters (Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard) who are fans, and makes it obvious how Jobriath's outre style was just a few years ahead of the mainstream, he doesn't make the most of the music itself. Viewers will surely have their curiosity piqued, but may not walk out convinced of Jobriath's place in the pop Pantheon.

What they will leave with, surely, is sympathy for the man behind the persona: After his high-visibility flop and a difficult period as a gay hustler, Jobriath was reborn as Bryce Campbell, a Bobby Short-ish purveyor of the classic American songbook. We hear how he built a loyal fanbase in New York while living in the Chelsea Hotel, only to die in 1983, one of the first victims of AIDS.

Brandt, for his part, has apparently failed in a less devastating way. Interviewed in Miami Beach in 2011, he talks as if dollar signs are still in his eyes: Forget a little documentary -- he sees the Jobriath story as fodder for a feature film or stage musical, with reissued CDs following soon. All, one assumes, kicking royalties back to Jerry Brandt Productions.

Production Company: Eight Track Tape Productions

Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Kieran Turner

Directors of photography: Michael Canzoniero, PJ Gaynard

Music: Ian Moore, Jason Staczek

Editor: Danny Bresnik

No rating, 102 minutes