Music

Antony & the Johnsons: Turning: A Musical Documentary

Charles Atlas' 2006 tour documentary captures the depth, beauty, and complexity of Antony Hegarty’s artistic vision and her corollary mission for transgendered acceptance.


Turning: A Musical Documentary Featuring Antony & the Johnsons

Director: Charles Atlas
Cast: Antony Hegarty, Maxim Mosten, Rob Moose, Julia Kent, Jeff Langston, Thomas Bartlett, Parker Kindred
Studio: Secretly Canadian/Rough Trade
UK Release Date: 2014-11-10
US Release Date: 2014-11-11

Judith Butler famously and controversially identified gender as “performative” in her influential 1990 work Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler’s contention has been controversial, I think, because too much emphasis has been placed upon the root word, with its connotation of acting or falsity, and not enough upon the suffix, which points to the always questionable construction of social norms regarding gendered behavior. Gender and its associate construction of identity is performative in society because broadly practiced patterns of repetition in gendered behavior lead to internalized perceptions of what is normal or abnormal. Butler’s awareness of this social construction, though, is not meant to limit gendered identities; rather, this awareness should free us to challenge the binary limitations of gender-based perception and to create new norms through the representation and repetition of new patterns of behavior. The performative nature of gender is not a cage but rather a stage, one on which we are all simultaneous actors and directors.

Antony Hegarty and Charles Atlas confronted the performative nature of gender identity in their staging of a series of concerts by Antony & the Johnsons, first presented in 2004 at the Whitney Biennial in New York City, then, in November 2006, during a sequence of eight European performances. Traveling with a “sisterhood” of 13 “NYC Beauties", each of the models, who present themselves along a spectrum of transgendered identities, would appear on stage, nearly motionless, as they stood upon a slowly revolving platform. Atlas, working with a series of cameras and video-effects monitors, projected their slowly turning image upon a screen, a backdrop and personified context for each song performed by Antony and her band. The documentary, directed by Atlas, captures snippets of these performances along with behind-the-scenes footage of the travel and preparation between shows. Most importantly, Atlas allows each of the models time to share pieces of their personal histories or their inspirations for participating in this traveling art event. Throughout, viewers are forced to confront the false logic implicit in binary conceptions of gender. “Are you a boy? Are you a girl?” Antony asks in her wavering, otherworldly voice during “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy". By the concert’s, and film’s, end, such a simple-seeming question is irredeemably complicated.

Each model confronts and questions the concept of normal, some flinching with the weight of its expectation as they remember their past struggles, but all join together in an empowered rejection of its conventions, standing proud in representation of a new normal that compassionately embraces difference and acknowledges the power of individual choice. “It takes a lot of rational thinking to get like this,” says one, “nothing freaky about it." That Atlas chooses not to identify the models individually as they appear adds weight to their collective force. As in Butler’s theory, it is the defining behaviors of the mass that codifies perceptual norms for the individual; Atlas presents us with a mass of women defining their own norms. “One of the things I wanted most was never to be judged," one model says in describing herself as a teenaged runaway, and then, in seeming contradiction, “and I wanted to be beautiful". But by this time the viewer understands that there is no contradiction in this statement, because it is a self-defined beauty that she is describing.

Each model turns before our eyes, amplifying the metaphor of the performance’s title. Each of these models, as well as Antony herself, has undergone a turn, several in many cases. At its most obvious, the audience is witness to the sum of each individual’s turning, its end result. But, perhaps, the truest expression of the metaphor occurs within the model’s perspective as the watching eyes of the audience spiral around her, recreating on stage the experience of difference each must feel as she walks among the stares of the gender-conforming majority. Perspective, for these women, does not spin solely upon the mechanized gyre on which they stand on stage; the myriad staring eyes of the street must also spin daily around them.

Onstage, Antony is a commanding presence. The concerts were filmed following her Mercury Award for I Am a Bird Now and the confidence shows through her usually shy demeanor. She performs most songs at center stage, and watching her perform without the usual shield of a piano reveals an expressive and passionate performer. Standing and singing, body jerking and nervous hands gesturing without control, lost in the music, she, surprisingly, evokes memories of Joe Cocker’s histrionic belting and bellowing. But there is vulnerability in her stage presence that, ironically, adds power to the performance. Standing there, exposed, singing thoughts and experiences long closeted, Antony demonstrates more strength (okay, more balls) than Cocker’s hyper-masculinized prancing ever engendered.

Artist: Antony & the Johnsons

Album: Turning

Label: Secretly Canadian/Rough Trade

US Release: 2014-11-11

UK Release: 2014-11-10

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/antony_turning_cover.jpg

The accompanying 17-song soundtrack, recorded at London’s Barbican Centre over two nights, presents Antony and her longtime accompanists at the peak of their powers. The string trio of Maxim Mosten, Rob Moose, Julia Kent, bassist Jeff Langston, pianist Thomas Bartlett, and drummer Parker Kindred share an empathic, intuitive relationship with Antony, allowing space for the music to breathe. Many of the songs feature extended instrumental breaks, no doubt in service to Atlas’s video projections of the models, creating a calming sonic effect. Antony’s performance of many songs is similarly more ponderous. For example, the painful, poignant “Cripple and the Starfish", with its lyrics of abuse is treated, here, differently than on record. In its original recording, Antony’s voice is raised in confrontation, and the song’s lyrics describing a violent relationship are thrown back at the perpetrator of the abuse; here, those same lyrics are sung softly and register more as internal reflection, vocalized not in conflict but as self-healing, as if Antony is declaring that, while the experience has shaped her, she will not be defined by it.

This is the second live record Antony has released since her last studio effort. Where fans waiting for new original material might question the decision to release another live album during the interval, this is a very different kind of album and listening experience than 2012’s Cut the World. Like that album, the songs flow together to create a singular experience, but this concert, recorded six years earlier and without the full orchestration of the latter, sounds even more intimate. Here, we hear Antony still forming, still turning, already in possession of that indescribably voice and aware of its power, but learning to temper and refine its focus, to, ultimately, wield her most powerful tool with precision.

Though nearly a decade has passed since the performances recorded here, their power is not diminished. If anything, that power resonates more strongly for the strides made by the transgender community during that interim. When Antony released I Am a Bird Now in 2004, many in the transgendered community still felt marginalized, even among conversations within the LGBT community. Since then, numerous positive representations of transgendered identity have registered within our broader popular culture, such as the success of transgendered models like Lea T and Geena Rocero and the poignant work of actress Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black. Awareness, understanding, and support continue to grow. Antony remains at the forefront of this movement. This powerful, moving document captures her at a key point when she begins to both understand and embrace her power. Speaking to the models before their final performance, Antony instructs them, “Tonight is your night.... Step into your moment.” Oh, for this simple, empowering statement to be carried forward in each heart for every day forward.

Author's Note: Antony identifies as transgender, and we do not yet have a formalized means of addressing transgendered identity in our Standard English. As such, I have chosen to address Antony via the feminine pronoun throughout this review. In interviews, Antony has rejected male identifiers while commenting also upon the inadequacy of female identifiers. In balance, I thought female pronoun reference to be truer to the subject's identity.

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