Even before the critically adored, commercially popular Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom gave way to countless copycats, the documentary field was deluged with attempts to excavate, polish, and in some cases restart the careers of musical also-rans and behind-the-sceners.
Kieran Turner’s Jobriath A.D. is an exceptional example of this subgenre, a cubist portrait of an unknowable man and a dramatic whodunit about an artist-victim who died by a thousand cuts. Glam rocker Jobriath succumbed to AIDS in 1983, but most of Turner’s interviewees agree that the former piano prodigy died a more significant death a decade earlier, when neither of his two albums managed to chart.
Though it’s never explicitly presented as such, this comprehensive biography takes the form of a mystery: Why did the first openly gay rocker signed to a major record label fail? Surviving friends, family, and colleagues posit homophobia, inept marketing, and Jobriath’s moody, undisciplined personality. Though the film is honest enough to mention the singer’s post-fame stints in prostitution, it maintains the unassailable genius of his songs (which, to my ears, sound like pretty generic ’70s rock).
Even more than championing his musicianship, though, Turner is interested in securing a place in the pantheon of queer heroes for rock’s self-proclaimed “true fairy.” (Take that, David Bowie.)
When Jobriath appears on TV in 1974 as a crystal flower — every bit the prancing “pianoed penis” the press called him — it’s a reminder of how much we still need imaginative pioneers like him today.