This documentary of the famed fashionista prompted Judge Bill Gibron to get a makeover, but the rest of us think his new assless judiciary robes just aren't cool.
"Flesh is my favorite fabric"—Leigh Bowery
Born in a small town in Australia, Leigh Bowery grew up under the influence of a conservative family and the strict moral code of the Salvation Army (of which his parents were members). By the time he reached his teens, he realized two things: first, he was obviously homosexual; and second, he needed to get out from Down Under and flee to England immediately. Within a few short years of his arrival in the UK, Bowery became the literal talk of the town, a larger-than-life illustration of the growing "club kid" movement. Eventually, his audacious styles caught the eye of Michael Clarke's avant-garde London dance troupe, and it wasn't long before Leigh Bowery the Blitz boy was Leigh Bowery the nightclub owner (the celebrated hot spot TABOO), artist's model (he posed for noted British portrait painter Lucian Freud), and himself—living art exhibit (he spent a week behind a one-way mirror in a small room solo performance at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery).
Such a figure of flaming flamboyance and outright twisted brilliance is never destined to burn so brightly for too long, and sadly, in 1994, AIDS finally felled this brave, borderline insane visionary of vamp. Even today, a decade after his death, people are just catching up with the imagination and experimentation that Leigh made part and parcel of this persona. And though myth is measured in elements of timelessness, it's safe to say that on the scale of sensationalism, there is more than enough evidence to support a claim for immortality—to warrant The Legend of Leigh Bowery.
For most people, performance art is a hard medium to get a handle on. A classic comedy routine says that most mixtures of antics with aesthetic attitude are like standup routines without the jokes. It's rare when someone with something to say (like Laurie Anderson) manages to create an avenue that both celebrates and criticizes the medium he or she employs. Usually, it all ends up being suffocating and self-indulgent, unable to mask its lack of insight, even with all the droll faux commentary careening into the audience. But sometimes, you catch a glimpse of what the blending of concert with creativity can really create. And there is no denying that, when it came to combining fashion with the freakish, confrontation with couture, Leigh Bowery was a genius—sick, twisted, talented, and a little tragic, but a being of unbridled brilliance none the less. He was performance art, from the moment he woke in the morning until the time he hit the nightclub circuit dressed in another delirious, decadent design.
Watching The Legend of Leigh Bowery, the fascinating documentary on his life by longtime friend and collaborator Charles Atlas, one gets the sense of the sheer scope and size of Bowery's bravado and skill. Following his early forays into fashion (where he mixed fetishism with Eastern idolatry to create the ultimate party persona) to later attempts to open his vision to the mainstream, Bowery bet on the idea that people were sick of being told what to wear, and instead, envisioned a world where individuals determined their own visual flair. Like a far more demented Divine, Leigh Bowery was a man playing androgyny to extreme ends, all in an effort to critique the commercial world. And more times than not, he succeeded.
Like most masters of his craft, Bowery couldn't be—and wasn't—appreciated in his time. Indeed, his controversial, corrupt concepts challenged all aspects of British society, not just style or sexuality. Leigh dabbled in all manner of mismatches, juxtapositions that accented both the beautiful and the baneful of everything he attempted. Perhaps inspired by the punk movement and its DIY sense of chic, Bowery's 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. Just looking at the many outfits and frightful ensembles he created over the course of his short life, we understand Leigh's love of clash. Sequins of dazzling luminosity were matched with dirty fright wig wonders. Outrageously colored coats of layered fabrics were worn over ugly, contradictory coordinates. Legs were encased in long, asymmetrical coverings that suggested sensuality even as they hid anything remotely human. Makeups were extreme, reminiscent of circus clowns, cabaret, and the crazy cartoon-like. Skin was also a frequent source of inspiration. Bowery created elaborate outfits that accentuated fat and folds—crotch and ass—to make the body an important part of the self-sculpture.
Odd thing was, for all his publicity and preaching, Bowery was not designing for a market, or even for a movement (no matter how linked he is/was to the New Romantic/Blitz wave of early '80s London). No, instead, Bowery was using his corpus as a canvas, a chance to experiment with his personal form and function to modify and mystify. That his work is shocking and scatological even in the light of a more progressive postmillennial mindset is a testament to his total temporal displacement. The reason Bowery couldn't really be appreciated in his own era is because his work is truly unstuck in time, lost in its own world of wonder and weirdness.
While it's true that, for all intents and purposes, The Legend of Leigh Bowery is 85 minutes of talking heads, friends and family, associates and confidants, all explaining the enigmatic appeal of Leigh and his "looks," there is much more to this movie than a discussion of a dead friend. Director Charles Atlas manages to manipulate this footage in a very fascinating way. He paints not only a telling portrait of his subject, but celebrates Leigh's skill at self-promotion and illustrates the overwhelming wickedness and cheek in his designs. A great deal of how much you enjoy this movie will be based solely on how you react to Bowery's persona and his conceptual clothing. You may find it witty and ironic, or sad and hedonistic. There is an element of human horror matched with masochism and a touch of the Victorian dandy as well. Sexual roles are reversed, reoriented, and rethought in Bowery's bold vision, and body parts—even the most private ones—are on public display throughout The Legend of Leigh Bowery, a chance to exploit the naughtiness of being naked while forcing attention on the mores that make nudity unclean. There are also times when Bowery's work can be just plain dumb (the onstage baby birth, or the drinking of "piss") or outrageous just for the sake of a shock. And while these instances are enlightening for the sake of insight into the artist's personality, they are a tough sell for people expecting a more mainstream interpretation of Leigh's life. But the one thing that can be safely said about Bowery and his mannerisms is that he never draws a yawn. Love him or hate him, Leigh's looks and artistic temperament made people feel something. And isn't that the purpose of art, after all, even if it's of a personal, performance nature?
Thanks to Palm Pictures and Lions Gate, we can now witness the wild world of early '80s London clubland in full-blown audiovisual glory. The DVD of The Legend of Leigh Bowery is jam-packed with more bonus features and contextual material than most mainstream movie special edition DVDs, but it's the transfer and sonics that will completely satisfy. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is reference quality, direct-from-video pristine. Director Charles Atlas manages to find a way to incorporate archival material, old TV interviews, and home movies seamlessly to create a montage of memories and creative moments. Not only is The Legend of Leigh Bowery one of the best looking documentaries ever made, it is a sensationally directed work as well. Equally engaging is the superb soundtrack. Using house beats and dance music to underscore the nightlife aspects of the story, the Dolby Digital dynamics are exceptional.
But the real feast comes in the menu and bonus arena. In keeping with the multimedia elements of the film, the menu changes from design to design when accessing certain buttons. One minute it's minimal and stylish. The next, the screen is alive with jagged junk culture. Then there are the extras themselves—each one adds more insight and clarity into Leigh's character, aspects of the narrative we tend to miss in the film itself.
First up is Charles Atlas's fantastic commentary, one of the best out there. Trading on his long friendship and association with Bowery (as well as the people he interviewed for the film), Atlas offers dozens of anecdotes, even more gossip, and a few unbelievable tidbits that somehow didn't make it into his movie. Especially interesting are the reasons for Leigh's pierced cheeks, the amount of work required to create one of his outfits, and the general, genial nature of this purveyor of provocation. We also learn more telltale tidbits from additional interviews with Rosie O'Donnell (who brought the Boy George musical about Leigh, entitled TABOO, from London to Broadway), George himself, and several of Bowery's other friends.
Then there is the full performance film of Leigh in Amsterdam that you can access from a couple of angles—as well as a look at the infamous gallery sitting. Along with galleries of Leigh's fashions and looks, some additional biographical material, and a few short films created by Atlas back in the day, the DVD of The Legend of Leigh Bowery is like an in-depth biography come to life, a chance to marvel and imagine what this charismatic madman would be up to had disease not taken him from this Earth. It's also an opportunity to see the last gasp of personal artistic expression that existed before the proto-punk of grunge and the self-ironic rage of the '90s mandated that everyone conform and become numb. Bowery would never accept the boring boundaries of this postmillennial malaise. Perhaps, if he were still here, such a state wouldn't even exist. That is the true, lasting legend of Leigh Bowery.
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