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swan song review
A retired hairdresser sets off on a journey to fulfil a former client's dying wish.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Todd Stephens

Starring: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie

swan song poster

You wonder at what point it will be when you realise that you’ve become old. Maybe you see a picture of yourself from just a few years ago, and the fresh-faced adult in the frame is a markedly optimistic counterpoint to the progressively gaunt looking fella in the mirror, and the ensuing cold realisation that age is creeping in makes you feel like shit. Perhaps you, suddenly, have no idea what music is about anymore, and this cultural uncertainty makes you duly feel so far out of touch and so much like shit. Most mortifyingly, in hoary rite of passage as inevitable as it is torturous, you will one day look around at the increasingly younger people in the club and feel just like a parent, and just like shit. Let’s face it, getting old is shit.

swan song review

Take Pat Pitsenbarger (a career best Udo Kier), an elderly gay man rattling around an antiseptic care home with just his memories and a few condescending words from the nurses to haunt his day. It didn’t use to be like this: once upon a time as a prodigiously talented and flamboyant hairdresser, Pat was the queen of Sandusky, Ohio, feted for his instrumental role in the small-town gay scene.

Based upon a true story, Swan Song reconfigures the real life Pitsenbarger, who, among other acts of cultural heroism, was one of the first people to open a gay bar in such conservative contexts. The film, however, picks up with him at the dog end of his life when the glitter has faded, and life, and the gay experience, both so fast moving, have sashayed on... Could there be time and space for one last hurrah?

swan song review

One fateful morning, Pat receives an instruction to return to Sandusky to fulfil the dying wishes of his ex-client, whose last will and testament specifies that he be the one to prepare her for the funeral. There was some sort of unpleasantness between the two in the past (which will be carefully and emotively revealed across the narrative), but Pitsenbarger, instead of marking time in the care home, ultimately decides to seize the day and engage the central conceit of Swan Song: Pat’s road trip back to Sandusky, and his journey of discovery along the way.

Writer/director Todd Stephens’ film is in many ways about how male homosexual culture has evolved over the last three decades, progressions which the film positions as cautiously positive developments. It saves its true emotional focus, however, for examining the specifically brutal phenomena of being an aged queen. As established, getting old is a terrible business where anybody is concerned. But for gay men of Pitsenbarger’s vintage there were/are further tiers of cruelty. Pat’s friends, and his beloved partner whose image haunts him in sudden moments of heartbreak, have succumbed to AIDS. Furthermore, the opportunities for someone like Pat to create a family were limited then, so getting on entails solitude. And, look, the inconvenient truth of it all is that male gay culture is one which is almost entirely preoccupied with youth and beauty. What place is there for an almost septuagenarian in this world, however fabulous? (Kier’s performance really is something it must be said, he’s having so much fun with the role and imbues it with incredible, relatable pathos).

swan song review

Is there a deliberately uncomfortable nostalgia in Swan Song? The idea that way back when, being gay, with certain aspects of society dead set against you and the necessity for glamorous subterfuge, was somehow more special and even exciting than the current mainstream acceptance of the LGBTQ+ existence? One of Pat’s contemporaries, cottaging in a public toilet (what people did before Grindr), bemoans that he doesn’t know ‘how to be gay anymore’, while whimsically looking at a same sex couple and their kid across the way. A poignant contradiction in this wonderfully entertaining film is the suggestion that being gay now perhaps isn’t the party which it used to be. But all parties must come to an end, a reality which Pat, and we, come to terms with throughout the film. At one glorious point, however, the lads in the club which Pat used to own, young and old, all let off steam (and how! I cannot think of a film where the dancing has seemed so spontaneous and joyful) upon a vibrant dancefloor to Robyn (♥). It’s reassuring to know that some things will never get old.

Swan Song is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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