Writer and Director: Ethan Silverman
Rather than a documentary that tells us how important Marc Bolan’s influence is to today’s generation, Ethan Silverman’s film demonstrates T. Rex’s legacy by bringing together a variety of artists from megastars U2 to Texan jazz band Snarky Puppy to cover tracks by the 70s band. Perhaps surprisingly, Bolan’s songs, teetering on platform heels and wrapped in feather boas, stand up pretty well to a 21st-century treatment.
The best rendition surely must be Macy Gray’s reggae-infused Children of the Revolution; it sounds perfect and when Gloria Jones, Bolan’s ex-partner and mother of their son, Rolan, remembers that Bolan once jammed with Bob Marley this updated version doesn’t sound so radical after all.
In comparison, U2’s take on Get It On is a tamer affair. Bono decides to huskily whisper the lyrics and, in the short snippet we hear, the song loses its joyous propulsion. In interview, The Edge recalls that Hot Love was the first tune he ever played on the guitar. This memory goes some way to restoring T. Rex’s reputation among music purists. Until recently, glam rock bands have been seen as lightweight entertainment rather than experimental architects of the avant-garde.
Nick Cave slows down Cosmic Dancer to an elegiac pace and the words ‘I danced myself into the tomb’ have never been so poignant. Beth Orton highlights the folky vibe in some of Bolan’s compositions while Joan Jett finds raw 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll in Jeepster. Father John Misty’s clear voice completely changes 1972’s Main Man. Most of these songs appear, along with others by Marc Almond and Maria McKee, in a similarly entitled album, AngelHeaded Hipster, released in 2020. It proved to be record producer Hal Willner’s last album before his death from Covid.
Parallel to the recording sessions, there is an economic but gripping history of Bolan from his arrival on the Mod scene in the 1960s to his death in 1977 with plenty of archive interview footage. The only part of this documentary section that doesn’t quite work is the film’s determination to place Bolan firmly in the Punk subculture that started around 1974. Of course, there would be no Punk without him. His make-up and androgyny definitely paved the way for Punk’s uniform, but his softness and whimsicality were certainly at odds with Punk’s snarling aggression best illustrated when Bolan, on his eponymously titled TV show Marc, introduces Billy Idol’s Generation X.
Likewise, when The Jam appear on Marc, their sharp, honest suits seem a thousand miles away from Bolan’s extravagance. There’s an irony here, too, as Bolan was once so Mod that he was considered to be a Face, a Mod who dictated fashion rather than followed it. But as The Jam sing All Around The World, Bolan seems stuck in an everlasting present refusing to move on with the times and also refusing to go back and don the Mod suits that were making a come-back. Bolan had plans to change his style – disco, suggests Gloria Jones – and to become a film director. However, his fans declined to change with him. In a way, Bolan was trapped by his own success.
Bolan’s closest competition was probably Bowie, and it makes sense the two men were rivals as well as friends, but Bowie’s chameleon skills were such that he remained relevant while Bolan struggled. The world gasped when Harry Styles wore a dress for the cover of Vogue, but Bowie and Bolan (Jagger, Mercury, too and even Blur’s Damon Albarn) were earlier trailblazers for other versions of masculinity that challenge heteronormative models. Bolan really knew how to get it on, and this film is proof of that.
But for all his forward-thinking, Marc Bolan was a man curiously of his time.
Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex is coming to UK cinemas from 22nd September and Home Entertainment from 6th November 2023.