Swan Song arrives in cinemas nationwide on June 10th.
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It’s hard to believe that Todd Stephens’ semi-autobiographical movie Edge of Seventeen was released twenty-four years ago or that Gypsy 83, the second film in his Ohio trilogy, is twenty-one years old. Swan Song sees Stephens return to Sandusky, Ohio, his home town with an intimate, celebratory and melancholic tribute to Mr Pat, a hairdresser, performer and local legend. Mr Pat now resides in a care home on the edge of town, forced back into the closet through care. Still, just around the corner, a second coming out journey is about to begin, as past and present merge in an explosion of memories, colour and defiance.
Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) was once known as Mr Pat, his hairdressing business the talk of the town, while his performances in the local gay bar were the stuff of legend. However, Mr Pat now languishes in a nursing home, spending his money on illicit cigarettes while neatly folding paper napkins to while away the hours of silence. But after the death of one of his prestigious ex-clients, the republican politician Rita (Linda Evans), Pat receives a request to do her hair for the upcoming funeral. Initially, Pat declines the offer; after all, he has no supplies, and his health is a barrier to re-entering the town. But as he folds yet another paper napkin, Pat decides it’s time to confront the ghosts of his past and announce his return in a final flamboyant, tender and touching odyssey.
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Every gay venue in every town has its legends, from those who campaigned for equality to those who cared for others during the AIDS epidemic or stuck two fingers up at the world outside with pride and defiance. When I first entered my local gay venue as a teen, these icons would sit at the bar; they were gay royalty and were treated as such. Many of these legends didn’t suffer fools gladly with their cutting humour and defiant tone. Still, their treasure trove of memories and knowledge was always celebrated and relevant as they sipped their drinks and puffed on their cigarettes; they were the gatekeepers of the local gay community and the custodians of its history.
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However, since the late 1990s, these figures have slowly vanished, the lively, free-wheeling community-driven gay venues they presided over replaced by cocktail bars, restaurants and coffee shops. During these years, the gay scene has changed forever, with some arguing this is for the best. But others believe that the heart of the LGBTQ+ community is slowly vanishing through progress as we embrace the heterosexual world.
Of course, with progress comes change, and these themes ripple through Stephens’ film and are brought into sharp focus when Mr Pat looks upon two gay dads playing with their kids and says, “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay now.” Here Stephens’ movie is a sharp, witty and bittersweet love letter to a changing gay scene that often feels alien to many older LGBTQ+ people – the shiny new cocktail bars, where young people celebrate their freedom, often unwelcoming to the older people who made those freedoms a reality.
Udo Kier in Swan Song ©Peccadillo Pictures
But if all this sounds sombre, fear not because Swan Song is also incredibly funny and delightfully vibrant. Here Stephens’ film is packed to the brim with wit and charm, from Mr Pat’s search for hair products now labelled as toxic to his reunion with his former protégé, Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), who he blames for the failure of his salon years before.
However, the humour is second to the tender, touching and beautiful exploration of Mr Pat’s past as he revisits his glittering life and the moments that shaped his experience as a gay man in small-town America. For example, we learn that Pat’s lover, David, died of AIDS during the height of the pandemic, with Pat’s straight hairdressing clients shunning him for Dee Dee in the process. One deeply touching scene sees Mr Pat return to the house he shared with David, only to find it demolished. Here, Mr Pat tells the new landowners that the property was lost after David’s nephew threw him out of the home to sell it.
Central to this balance of humour, emotion, eccentricity, and joy is the amazing Udo Kier, who offers us a fabulous tour de force of a performance. In Keir’s loving hands, Mr Pat comes alive as he exudes the passion, difference and defiance of all those ageing queer icons who used to sit at the bar in your local gay venue.
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There is so much to love in Kier’s performance, with highlights including his final defiant stage performance in the town’s only gay venue, his barbed comments as he arrives at the funeral home, and his touching reminiscence on gay life with the ghosts of his past. But when this divine performance meets Stephens’ exceptional screenplay and direction, Swan Song becomes a glittering gem. Flamboyant, touching and heartwarming; Swan Song is an instant classic.
Flamboyant, touching and heartwarming; Swan Song is an instant classic.