They’d lead people astray.
—Nick (Sean Harris)
“I think Ken Russell should stick to Women in Love,” says self-styled cinema vérité filmmaker Eddie Pasquar (Tom Bower). As Eddie holds forth in the mockumentary Brothers of the Head, he’s making a case for his own work as much as denouncing Russell’s. This because Russell’s film about conjoined twin rockers Tom and Barry Howe (played by real-life brothers Harry and Luke Treadaway) is, in Eddie’s eyes, “like all biopics. They miss the essence.”
The very fact that Russell makes a self-mocking appearance to defend his plainly Russellian biopic, named after a song by the Howes, “Two-Way Romeo,” suggests the mockumentary’s audacity and profound devotion to its own doubleness. Russell is, in a word, the perfect choice of artist to translate such an outrageous, supposedly true story into outrageous fiction. As he notes, one of the twins is named Tommy, and so… well, isn’t the director of the freak showish Tommy best suited to make the essence-missing biopic?
The conundrum only gets more twisted, in part because it’s fictional (based on a 1977 novel by Brian Aldiss, who also appears in the film to note discrepancies between it and his book). But it’s not always only fiction. Brothers explores the overlaps between fiction and reality as they constitute rock-stardom, and more expansively, sexuality, desire, and consumption. The brothers embody, quite literally (though of course, fictionally) the doubled-up flipsides of all kinds of genres and ideals. As Tom and Barry are exploited and idolized, their tragedy (for what else can it be?) reveals the costs of commodification.
The story that leads to such broadly thematic questions is decidedly strange. Born to a poor rural couple, Tom and Barry are, according to their older sister, a shock to their mother (she dies) and a strain on their father (who doesn’t want them separated and eventually sells them to one Zak Bedderwick (Howard Attfield), an impresario who decides to make of them a novelty act (“I never exploited anyone who didn’t want to be exploited,” he insists). While the film inserts some archival freak show footage to make its thematic point here, the brothers are living at a particular moment, and so their gimmick is geared to what’s most marketable during the 1970s, that is, a loud and pretty rock duo, part glam, part punk, all exploitative. They’re carted off to an isolated mansion on the east coast of England, where they’re instructed in guitar-playing and singing and deemed the Bang Bang.
The film, directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (who made the excellent documentary Lost in La Mancha ) includes scenes of the boys’ lessons, rehearsals, and early club shows, as well as then-and-now interviews with their manager Nick (Sean Harris), music instructor Paul (Bryan Dick), and Eddie, assigned to make a film about them. But while Eddie imagines he’ll find a truth (or that “essence” he talks about), his camera most often feels intrusive, butting in Tom and Barry as they huddle in the darkness of their bedroom or seeming intimacy of the shower. Their handlers are alternately solicitous (Paul has them play again and again, encouraging them when they sound dreadful) and cruel (Nick insists that Barry is “out of control,” and beats him so the boy shows up at rehearsals with bruised face and black eyes).
Never alone, Tom and Barry are always affected by one another: one snorts cocaine, the other sweats, Tom rehearses a song while Barry tries desperately to block out the repetition with his headphones. They share their abuses, both victims, different and alike. When asked whether they even want to be separated, their answers shift from moment to moment. They can’t imagine living apart and yet, as Tom says, “If I had conjoined twins, I’d cut them down the middle like a slice of bread.”
As might be expected, the Howes’ first show, at a pub crowded with lads, draws jeers: they look like “two poofs coming on and cuddling each other” or again, “queer wankers.” But rather than retreat, Barry “just grabs the mic stand and starts screaming his lyrics,” marvels Nick. “He starts lifting his shirt and showing them where the join is.” It’s a stunning self-display that first stops the raucous audience, then has them yelling back at the stage: “Show it! Show it!” Thus the gimmick is reborn, the repulsive oddity transformed into alluring spectacle.
Their success is thrilling, traumatic, and short-lived. At first the twins grasp at possibilities, performing in order to find themselves—during a photo shoot, they’re posed with two twin girls who wear masks: as if to take control of the situation, the boys, relegated to background in the composition, begin kissing one another, their queerness exposed (in any number of ways, with this literalization only the least subversive). The photographer remembers the shoot as chaotic. “Testosterone,” she says, “that’s what happened.”
But for the male interviewees, the crucial problem is exactly opposite, namely, the Yoko-esque Laura (Tania Emery). When she first arrives on the scene, the older Paul observes, “If you’re in trouble and you need a friend, Laura Ashworth is the last person you want to see coming around the corner.” A journalist angling to write an “expose” of the twins’ exploitation, Laura soon joins in the party, falling in love with Tom (“The way he held his silence, I found that attractive”) and also drawn to Barry (“I wanted to protect him”).
As she ponders her relationships with the twins in hindsight (“You did and you didn’t forget that they were joined together”), the film offers shots of the boys on stage (girls rushing to touch the overwhelmingly symbolic, horrific, and precious join), Laura conducting an early interview (the boys harass her, childish and angry, one slipping his hand up her skirt), watching them perform, sharing their bed, acknowledging Eddie’s camera as part of the process: they’re defined by being watched.
Produced as a function of (this) film, Tom and Barry are inextricably intertwined in their desires, as objects and subjects. Even as it turns generically sentimental by the end (again, mocking the format by following it completely), Brothers is also haunting, even disturbing. The trouble, at last, isn’t testosterone or loss of control or even exploitation. It’s the join, the difference and the sameness, the show. And it’s unending.
Brothers of the Head - Theatrical Trailer