'Wig': Film Review | Tribeca 2019
This HBO documentary about the rebirth of the New York drag festival Wigstock throws plenty of shade, often at itself.
Those looking for a celebratory tribute to the recently revivified outdoor drag festival Wigstock might be surprised by Chris Moukarbel's HBO-bound documentary, Wig, which premiered at the most recent Tribeca Film Festival. Based on the footage gathered here, the party — which took place on September 1st, 2018 at South Street Seaport in New York City — looks like it was a blast. Yet the film itself is a far from festive affair, more of an anesthetized chronicle of Wigstock's apparent irrelevance in the current cultural and political moment.
Wig is an officially sanctioned production (Wigstock 2018 celebrity backers David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris are among the producers) that rather contradictorily throws shade at benefactors and benefitters alike. In this context, for example, RuPaul — the drag queen who effectively bridged the gap between underground and mainstream — comes off as both esteemed patron saint and plague-of-locusts-like scourge. You get the sense that many of the interviewees, a number of whom came up with her through the downtown nightlife scene without achieving a fraction of her success or influence, wouldn't give Ru the chance to lipsync for her life. Speaking through gritted teeth and barely concealed resentment, they seem to recognize that something irrevocable has been lost due to drag's much wider popularity.
A good portion of this tension certainly arises from the fact that Wigstock began as a countercultural lark. The early scenes are especially interesting as Moukarbel uses lo-res archival video clips (the copious streetlamp light smears gorgeously every time the camera whips or pans) to sketch a history of '80s NYC drag culture. The Pyramid Club on the Lower East Side was the usual gathering place, and it was after one long drunken night at the venue that Wigstock founder Lady Bunny and several friends wandered over to Tompkins Square Park and put on an impromptu drag show.
What began as an inebriated jape soon became a touchstone, attracting larger and larger crowds, a venue change to the Hudson River area once Rudy Giuliani came to power, and even a prior documentary film (1995's Wigstock: The Movie) that enshrined the event's outsider status even as it sold it to a larger audience. The last official Wigstock was in September 2001, just a week out from 9/11. The subsequent shift in societal temperament was at odds with the festival's outward lightheartedness and its inner sense of revolt. It's clear, though, that the event's mainstream-courting slip was already showing. By that light, what could a Wigstock 2018 be beyond a mere brand extension?
Wig certainly seems torn. At one moment the film is proselytizing about the rabble-rousing intentions of the early Wigstocks (performing drag in daylight, as one interviewee notes, was itself revolutionary in the repressive, AIDS-blighted 1980s). At another, it promotes the more family-friendly feel of the later incarnations, where a number of the performers, even at their cussy finest, come off like ingratiating circus clowns as opposed to in-your-face subversives. A fascinating scene featuring Harris sees him wondering aloud if the new Wigstock is just going to be Disneyfied — an interesting observation considering the guy who took Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Broadway is, for better and for worse, a Mickey Mouse-like figure (iconic, but…safe?) among LGBT personalities.
There are still some hints, sprinkled throughout the doc, of genuine rebellion, such as the withering observations of old-school Wigstocker Flotilla Debarge, never one to sugarcoat a thought or a feeling. And the film climaxes with a performance at new Wigstock by a trans MTF drag queen who displays her naked body with a liberated defiance that is bracing and blissful. The way Moukarbel presents these scenes, however, makes them feel like the exception rather than the rule. And when Wigstock's normal is 'normal,' something truly is off.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Movies Plus)
Director: Chris Moukarbel
Producers: Jack Turner, Bruce Cohen, David Burtka, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Weinberg, Jay Peterson, Michael Mayer, Todd Lubin
Cinematographer: Matthew Klammer
Editor: Ezra Paek
Composer: Patrick Belaga
Executive Producers: Jon Ingle, Leah Culton Gonzalez, Sara Bernstein
Associate Producers: Brande By The Way, George Scarles
Co-Producer: Mark Dicristofaro
US Distributor: HBO
Production Manager: Christina Roulette
Supervising Editor: Greg Arata