Jobriath was flash in the pan of glam rock, but his influence over the world of popular music is felt even now. Kieran Turner’s new documentary "Jobriath A.D." serves as a primer on all things Jobriath: Who he was, what he did, and how his career unraveled in spectacular and tragic fashion following his bold declaration that he was a "true fairy."
Jobriath was born Bruce Campbell, and he had several identities and stage names over the course of his life. As a young man, he was especially close to his mother; as his half-brother, interviewed for the film, explains, "He was the son that she could sit down and have a cigarette with, have a drink with. They were being glam queens together." For all that, and as unlikely as it sounds, his mother could not countenance any suggestion that her son was gay, as obvious as that might have been.
As a youth Campbell was reportedly a musical prodigy; he grew up to become what one interviewee here calls a "magnificently gifted" musician. He could play and compose classical music, standards from the 1920s and 30s, Broadway style show tunes, and rock and roll. It was the latter that lured and destroyed him: After appearing in a successful run of the musical "Hair," Jobriath set out to become a star in the mold of David Bowie, recording two albums that show the influences of everything from Mozart to the Thin White Duke himself.
Jobriath engaged Jerry Brandt as his manager. Brandt was a big name at the time, and he had worked with a number of major stars. He had a big style to match: Brandt publicized Jobriath right over the edge, and part of the problem--or so we are told here--was that Brandt expected Jobriath’s status as an openly gay man to boost the aspiring star’s career. But the public didn’t go for it; gays were still a despised minority, and if David Bowie could get away with wearing makeup and dresses it was because he came across as androgynous (not to mention alien), not gay. Meantime, gay culture was in the midst or rejecting stereotypes of feminine men and embracing a swaggering, macho style. It didn’t help that Jobriath seemed to come from nowhere with a meteoric rise that rubbed people the wrong way. What dues had he paid?
In fact, Jobriath paid some very steep dues, but that didn’t stop him from dreaming big. He endured the loss of his record contract after his second album failed to chart; he made an appearance on the television program "Midnight Special," only to be humiliated. In the aftermath of his failed stab at rock and roll stardom he completely re-invented himself once again, becoming Bryce Campbell, a fine pianist who won a following on the New York club scene by dressing up and playing songs by the like of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. (He even took the name Cole Berlin for some of his gigs.)
When he died in 1983, a victim of the AIDS epidemic, Jobriath’s father had his apartment cleaned out and his papers and manuscripts destroyed. It’s a potentially staggering loss; the musicianship and creativity that were the foundation of his artistic life spoke of a major talent that never got its due in a timely fashion. But Jobriath has not disappeared completely; his music is available online through services like iTunes and Spotify, and artists as diverse as Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears and heavy metal band Def Leppard praise his enduring impact in the course of the film.
Indeed, this documentary is proof that the late artist has reemerged as a creative force. (What could be more simultaneously creepy and affirming than Jerry Brandt’s intimations that he’d like to squeeze renewed fame from his long-ago association with Jobriath?) There are several striking animated sequences in this documentary, but the most moving of them comes at the end when Jobriath’s biggest artistic vision is realized, if only in pen and ink form.