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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Long live the New Romantics!

Screen Grabs: Long live the New Romantics!

New doc 'Tramps!' shows the music movement's queer side. Plus: Lily Gladstone in worthwhile feature 'Fancy Dance.'

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A classic instance of excess advance hype killing the thing itself, the New Romantic movement died at birth in San Francisco, having traveled 6000 miles or so to keel over upon arrival. It was sometime in late 1981 (I think), at the Mab aka On Broadway (I think), and some record label or other entity had organized an official launch party for the cultural moment, which was already somewhere near its peak in the UK but hadn’t as yet gotten much past music magazine photo spreads in the US. First albums by two eventually huge acts at least initially associated with the scene, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, had been released without making much impression, while Culture Club had yet to put out even a single.

Curious, skeptical denizens of the SF punk and media worlds milled around at the venue. Some had made mild efforts at “dressing up,” but few were willing to go all-out embracing a trend likely to prove a flash in the pan. I don’t remember if there was any kind of opening act, but the main attraction was supposed to be an appearance (presumably singing to prerecorded tracks) by New Romantic royalty Steve Strange, a London nightclub personality turned frontman for synthpop group Visage.

Unbeknownst to those attending, he had apparently already checked out the hall beforehand, decided he did not like the stage setup, and refused to show up for his own event. As news of this gradually leaked out, the evening went from celebrating New Romanticism to being a joke at its expense, one that memorably climaxed as three young women climbed onto that stage to ritualistically tear apart a life-sized cardboard promotional likeness of Strange. The crowd response was the night’s sole display of real enthusiasm.

Well, many things die crossing the Atlantic. Perhaps the problem with the New Romantic movement is that it was sold here as something primarily musical—when at that point the lame dance tracks and imitative New Wave pop its artists issued were its least interesting aspect. The new documentary Tramps!, available on US digital streaming platforms as of June 18, provides much of the larger context underwhelmed Americans missed at the time. Its arrival this month is timely, as Kevin Hegge’s film underlines the degree to which New Romantics were an expression of queer identity and creativity.

While rock wore homophobia as a badge of pride in the US (you couldn’t take a leak in my midwestern high school without seeing the morons’ favorite graffiti, “David Bowie Is A Fag”), in the UK things were considerably less clear-cut. London’s Swinging Sixties, Carnaby Street fashions, glam-rock, and early punk all were very much shaped by gays, their friends, art-school students, and so forth. When punk developed its own rigidity about how supposed rebels were meant to dress and sound (a devolution later echoed in the States by hardcore), those same innovators began developing their own new breakaway scene.

Like SF’s own beatnik, hippie, and punk waves, it was a history that couldn’t repeat itself now—the rent is too damn high. But back then, in the bleak Thatcher era of late 1970s and early 80s, formerly posh neighborhoods had fallen into abandoned neglect. In East London, particularly, squatters took over whole palatial residences, creating laboratories for art-making among those who had no funds but a lot of imagination. Taking further ideas already established by events like the “Alternative Miss World” contest and prior epochs of gay camp, these “frilly people” began devising “radical drag” whose gender-blurring, fantastical, frequently outrageous nature gained edge (and sometimes physical danger) from the fact that core personnel wore it all the time—not just in clubs, but on the tube, on the street, etc.

Nonetheless, clubs did fuel the nascent movement, or at least bring it to the attention of the greater public. First there was Blitz, then later Taboo, the brainchild of performance artist-costumier Leigh Bowery. Bands were formed by key scenesters like Boy George and Strange. But music was not the exclusive point. Equally germane to the general aesthetic were contributions from choreographer Michael Clark, fashion label BodyMap, filmmaker John Maybury, body-painted performance troupe The Neo-Naturists, plus painters, video and installation artists, et al. New publications (i-DThe Face) arose to chronicle this world of ironical, no-budget extravagance. With fame inevitably came money, drugs, and other problems; then AIDS swept through with its devastation.

Needless to say, that death toll eliminated quite a number of the film’s potential interviewees, who are only seen in archival clips. (Though there is extensive input from stylist/designer Judy Blame, who died six years ago.) And quite a number of the surviving big names you might expect to hear from are notably absent. Perhaps Boy George, Marilyn, and some others are MIA because they already participated in Bruce Ashley’s Blitzed: The 80’s Biltz Kids’ Story, which covers much of the same terrain.

Indeed, you might watch Tramps! without quite grasping that New Romantics were ever greatly associated with music acts, so downplayed is that aspect here. That, perhaps, is a bit too much of an omission. But what Hegge’s film renders very vivid is how fertile and diverse a subculture this was. Though a few star personalities eventually stole most of the thunder (and suffered most of the backlash), one of many lesser-remembered luminaries recalls “If you were in it, it really was just like being in a big family.”

Indeed, their depiction recalls nothing so much as a preceding generation’s hippie-queer performance collectives like The Cockettes and Angels of Light—cutting-edge communities creating singular spectacle that both imitated and parodied mainstream glamour. While the lingering image may be of a few heavily powdered, polymorphously perverse extroverts in extravagant garb posing on the dance floor to bad synth tracks, Tramps!—a title that never makes much contextual sense—shows the New Romantics to have been a lot more compelling than the cultural footnote they fast got reduced to.

A more suitable monicker for Hegge’s documentary might be Fancy Dance. But instead, that is the name for Erica Tremblay’s first narrative feature—as well as a longstanding term for Native American dance forms that became formalized among Great Plains tribes about a century ago. Descended from traditional war dances, they were initially used in touristic performances, though now they’re widespread on the global powwow circuit.

An annual competition at one such event is the focus of many hopes for 13-year-old Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson). Among them is that there she’ll find her mother, who’s been missing two weeks. At least the girl’s home life remains somewhat stable, as she was already sharing a roof in the Cherokee Nation with auntie Jax (Lily Gladstone). But the latter has some old criminal offenses on her record… which means that when Child Protective Services takes note of the temporarily parent-free home, they’re legally obligated to place Roki elsewhere. Which winds up being off the reservation, in the house of the white grandfather (Shea Whigham) Jax is estranged from, and whose 2nd wife (Audrey Wasilewski) they’ve never met before.

This is jarring, for all parties concerned. So Roki is unresistant when Jax shows up in the middle of the night to (in the eyes of the law) “kidnap” her, for a road trip in which they’ll look for her mother en route to the powwow. As half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay) optimistically says, “It wouldn’t be the first time she [the missing sister] run off during powwow season.” But he, Jax and others are afraid that, given the mother’s reckless past behavior, her fate may turn out to have taken a turn grimmer than just another prolonged bender.

Written by the director and Miciana Alise, Fancy Dance is a quiet movie that is almost too low-key, at times on the verge of growing tepid. The fadeout feels perfunctory, other intended emotional highpoints undercooked. But it also has an air of psychological authenticity, with characters nicely delineated and even better cast. In her first role since Killers of the Flower Moon (though this movie actually premiered first), Gladstone confidently inhabits a much less passive figure, one whose weary nonconformity extends to a romantic relationship with a local strip-club dancer (Chrystle Lightning)—whom she insists on paying for her time.

Though their movie could be a little more assertive in its storytelling, the people it portrays are all credible, complex, and worth meeting. Fancy Dance opens in limited theaters (SF Bay Area venues were TBD at presstime) on June 21, then begins streaming on AppleTV+ June 28th.

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