Jobriath Photo By Dagmar (All Photos Courtesy of Jobriath The Movie Dot Com)
Timing is everything. While being an openly gay singer or actor is absolutely no big deal at all today, it wasn’t that long ago that a gay entertainer stayed in the closet for the sake of his or her career. Rock fans who were around in the late 1970s may recall that Elton John went from being indisputably the Biggest Rock Star in the World to a virtual non-entity once he came out of the closet. His career eventually rebounded, but it took years. Even Freddie Mercury, the most famous flamboyantly gay musician in modern rock history didn’t officially come out of the closet until the day before he died. Because in the macho Rock Arena of that era, it may have been okay for the glam rockers to wear make-up and dress in drag, or for Bowie and Jagger to spin rumors about shagging each other, but to actually admit to being gay and to live the out lifestyle was career suicide. It just wasn’t done.
It is a fact that those artists who break ground rarely get to reap the rewards of their efforts. In many ways, the unique and deeply engaging new documentary, Jobriath A.D. is a heartbreaking cautionary tale about a genuinely talented and groundbreaking entertainer who woefully misjudged the commercial climate. Directed by Kieran Turner, Jobriath A.D. is the little known, true story of the short life and career of Jobriath Boone, the first openly gay Rock Star to be signed to a major label. We attended a screening of the film last Friday as part of 2012 New Fest, New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, at the very comfy Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. The screening was sponsored by SAGE.
Jobriath Salisbury (real: name Bruce Campbell; Salisbury being his mother’s maiden name) got his professional break in the mid-1960s, playing the part of Woof in the Los Angeles production of Hair. He eventually relocated to New York City, recorded one album with the band Pidgeon, earned a cache of artistic credibility, and embarked on a solo career. Jobriath teamed up with a Svengali-like manager, Jerry Brandt, who fancied himself a reinvention of Col. Tom Parker to Jobriath’s Elvis Presley, and the hype machine kicked into high gear as Jobriath’s advance marketing campaign saw the artist’s semi-nude likeness plastered across a massive billboard in Times Square and on the sides of buses from New York and LA to London.
Jobriath was actively marketed as a “True Fairy” – an openly gay American counterpart to David Bowie. By the time Jobriath’s debut for Elektra records dropped, everyone knew who he was, but no one was interested in buying his music. The in-your-face gay image had turned off straight audiences and genuinely frightened gay would-be fans as well. The backlash was absolutely brutal. Although Elektra allowed Jobriath to record a sophomore album, neither of his records sold or charted. Despite mostly positive critical reviews and highly praised live performances, Jobriath was dropped from Elektra and quickly slipped into obscurity. After working as a piano playing lounge singer and sometime prostitute, Jobriath died of AIDS in August of 1983 at age 36.
As an astoundingly gifted musician, singer, composer and actor, it seems obvious that Jobriath was ideally suited for success on the Broadway stage. But Jobriath wanted to be a Rock Star, and he paid the ultimate price for a tragic miscalculation of just what the record-buying public was, and wasn’t, ready for. While the filmmaker doesn’t editorialize or point any fingers, an easy conclusion to draw is that Jerry Brandt’s megalomania helped to steer Jobriath off course, and eventually to ruin his life. I wonder how Brandt sleeps at night, to be honest.
As sad as Jobriath’s story ultimately is, Jobriath A.D. is a beautiful and inspirational film. Kieran Turner – who took on this project as a labor of love – was able to locate high quality archival photos of the artist’s life, from childhood, and footage of Jobriath performing on stage in Hair, recording in the studio and performing on TV’s The Midnight Special to a clearly perplexed audience. The action also maintains a compelling forward trajectory through many interviews with Jobriath’s half-brother Willie Fogle, his personal friends such as actress Ann Magnuson and actor Dennis Christopher, and professional associates such as Rock Journalist Jim Farber, Studio Legend Eddie Kramer and music industry insiders like Jim Fouratt and Dick Christian (who, notably, cut his teeth in the music business as a member of the entourage and crew for the original Alice Cooper Band). Jobriath’s enduring musical legacy is also elucidated by artists such as Marc Almond, Joey Arias, Jayne County, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Jake Shears of The Scissor Sisters, who all count Jobriath among their primary influences.
Jobriath A.D. is a flawlessly constructed documentary, and it’s obvious that director Kieran Turner was 100% emotionally invested in the final product. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. For more information and to find screenings in your area visit Jobriath The Movie Dot Com. Jobriath’s music is available on iTunes.