Reviews

The Legend of Leigh Bowery (2002)

Bill Gibron

Leigh Bowery played to his audience's sense of independence, using the 1980s social shift away from punkish DIY to outrageous opulence.


The Legend of Leigh Bowery

Director: Charles Atlas
Cast: Boy George, Nicola Bowery, Damien Hirst, Michael Clark, Rifat Ozbek, Bella Freud
Distributor: Palm Pictures/Lion's Gate
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: One Canvas Productions
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2004-07-13

Growing up in a small Australian town, Leigh Bowery fell under the stifling influence of two overwhelming conservative moral codes: the religious philosophy of the Salvation Army and quasi-barbaric sodomy laws that rendered homosexuality a jailable offense. Rather than rebel with unbridled delinquency, Bowery channeled such notions of shame and sin into his own outrageous life. Escaping to England in his late teens, he quickly formulated a persona that would challenge all aspects of his upbringing.

By the time he died of AIDS-related meningitis in 1994, Bowery was one of the most celebrated "human spectacles" in the underground art community, a fashionista force with the carnival community of junk culture. Whether performing with Michael Clarke's infamous avant-garde dance troupe or posing for Lucian Freud, Bowery drew mixed responses, both respected and despised by critics. Even after his well-received stints as a living exhibit in Anthony d'Offay's Gallery (he spent a week behind a one-way mirror) and leader of the experimental rock band Minty, Bowery was considered a sideshow geek, an entire theater of the absurd contained in a single human being.

Charles Atlas' brilliantly deconstructive documentary, The Legend of Leigh Bowery, uses Leigh's 15-year run as the ultimate New Romantic/Blitz kid to conjure one of the most moving and pained portrayals of a misunderstood malcontent ever produced. To do so, it contemplates his context, performance art, always difficult to define. (One classic comedy routine explains it as stand-up without the jokes.) Often, it's just self-indulgent faux social commentary. Still, there is no denying that when it came to skewering self-indulgence, Bowery was a genius, as well as twisted, talented, and a little tragic. He lived performance art from the moment he woke in the morning until the time he hit the nightclub circuit, each night dressed in another delirious, decadent design.

Watching The Legend of Leigh Bowery, one can begin to get the sense of the man's bravado and skill. Following his early forays into fashion (mixing fetishism with Eastern religious idolatry), Bowery played to his audience's sense of independence, using the 1980s social shift away from punkish DIY to outrageous opulence. London youth culture, at the time, was obsessed with going out and being seen, and no one wanted more attention that Bowery. At times seeming even more demented than Divine, he exploited androgyny and pornography in order to critique commercial culture. More often than not, he succeeded.

And yet, Bowery wasn't appreciated in his time. Indeed, he challenged all aspects of British society, not just style and sexuality. His broad interpretations of taste were interwoven with a desire to celebrate the beauty of the grotesque to push the envelope of both the glorious and the gross. He would festoon a cocktail frock with Nazi swastikas or incorporate all manner of phallic symbols onto his heavily sequined ensembles. This marvelous DVD package provides a glimpse into Bowery's lifelong love of clash. His style consists of shockingly colored coats, worn over contradictory coordinates, and asymmetrical leg-coverings that suggested sensuality even as they hid anything remotely human. He replaced his hair with wax-candle drip wigs or complex, painful headpieces, and his make-up was also extreme, reminiscent of clowns and cabaret performers.

But skin was Bowery's primary source of inspiration. He loved to create elaborate costumes that accentuated his own folds of fat, molding his crotch and ass into self-sculpture. He pierced, shaved, and colored his enormous frame, accentuating it to showcase his angry defiance of homophobia. It was all about the body and its boundaries for Bowery. He repeatedly asserted, "Flesh is my favorite fabric"

Sadly, at the time - Thatcher's near Depression-era England -- there was no market for his work, or even for a movement to embrace him. While he inspired musicians like Boy George and Dead or Alive singer Peter Burns, The Legend of Leigh Bowery argues that his was a personal crusade. His work is unstuck in time, forming its own world of wonder and weirdness. Sadly, all that's left behind today are a few outfits in a museum, some amazing images and a lot of memorable stories.

On one level, The Legend of Leigh Bowery is 85 minutes of talking heads -- friends and family, associates and confidants, all explaining his enigmatic appeal. On another, however, it aspires to its subject's inventiveness. Atlas says in his commentary track that he made a conscious effort to manipulate his footage, hoping to mimic and celebrate Bowery's vivacity and cheek. Taking us on trip into the cultural ruckus of London, circa 1984, the documentary mixes pop art, newsreel clips, and archival video.

As clever as it is, though, your enjoyment of the film will depend on your reaction to Bowery. You may find it witty and ironic, or sad and hedonistic. Body parts -- even the most private ones -- are on display throughout The Legend of Leigh Bowery, as it ponders the naughtiness of being naked while forcing attention to the social mores that make nudity unclean. At times, the film shows that Bowery's work could be just plain dumb or offensive, as when he performs an onstage birth or drinks fruit juice "piss." But Bowery was never boring; he made people feel something. And isn't that the purpose of art?


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