'The Unicorn': Film Review

Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives
Not for the emotionally squeamish.
2/15/2019

Isabelle Dupuis and Tim Geraghty's documentary provides an intimate portrait of outsider musician Peter Grudzien, creator of what many consider to be the first openly gay country album.

Comparisons to films like Crumb and Grey Gardens are inevitable for Isabelle Dupuis and Tim Geraghty's documentary about outsider musician Peter Grudzien. Following the lives of its eccentric central figure and his equally oddball family members over the course of several years, The Unicorn walks a fine line between sensitive observation and voyeurism, frequently tipping over into the latter. It's certainly an uncomfortable film to watch, but the viewer's discomfort doesn't begin to compare to that felt by the troubled people onscreen.

The doc's title refers to a homemade 1974 album composed, performed and recorded by Grudzien, who sold its 500 pressed copies on the streets of New York City. Regarded as one of first country albums to deal with openly gay themes, the largely unknown LP was rereleased 20 years later and became an acclaimed cult favorite.

Not that the album's critical resurrection had much practical impact on its creator, who continued to live in the ramshackle, Astoria, Queens, house he grew up in, along with his nonagenarian father Joseph and twin sister Terry. Both siblings suffered throughout their lives from mental illness that occasionally required hospitalization. At one point in the film, which was shot from 2005-2007, Peter speaks on the phone to his sister who is being confined at the same mental hospital where he was once a patient. "That's where I was when I had shock therapy!" he tells her excitedly.

Peter experienced some success in his younger years, writing songs for other musicians that were recorded and played on the radio starting when he was just 16 years old. His musical career never panned out, and he worked for many years as a commercial artist while never abandoning his first love. "It's my way of communicating," he says about his music. The film includes snippets from the album, as well as several scenes in which Peter is seen performing at home and a karaoke bar.  

Ultimately, however, it's the subjects' deeply troubled personal lives that most interest the filmmakers. The schizophrenic, deeply unhappy Terry describes her horrible childhood, which she blames on her unattractive looks. "How would you like to look like Frankenstein as a 5-year-old girl?" she asks plaintively. "It made me go insane." We learn that she had several cosmetic surgeries in the 1970s and '80s, the marks of which are plainly evident. Her father, a former coal miner, is not exactly sympathetic to her struggles. "For some people, life, it's not worth it," he dismissively says about his daughter.

The father's advanced age and increasing infirmity leads to The Unicorn's most dramatic episode. Three of Peter's cousins, describing themselves respectively as a physicist, nuclear engineer and retired police officer, show up unannounced and declare their intention to help their uncle move to an assisted living facility. Peter, desperately afraid he'll be forced to leave the house as well, is less than welcoming. "You should have made an appointment, I don't have time," he tells them.

Old photos showing the family members in (relatively) happier times are interspersed throughout the proceedings. By the end of the doc, we learn the fates of the major figures. Suffice it to say that it's not a happy ending.

Production company: Aonbheannach Productions
Directors: Isabelle Dupuis, Tim Geraghty
Producer-director of photography: Isabelle Dupuis
Editor: Tim Geraghty

92 minutes