Film Review: BFI Flare: Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

 Director: Posy Dixon

If trans issues were to have a backing track, it would undoubtedly be one rooted in jazz. This musical form allows for experimentation and improvisation, a perfect soundtrack for people creating new identities and genders. Now in his seventies, musician and trans man Beverly Glenn-Copeland has never been so famous and, as this documentary proves, it’s not hard to understand why.

Glenn-Copeland is not the first trans jazz musician. In the mid-twentieth century bandleader Billy Tipton lived life as a man, and the fact that he was born a woman came as shock to friends and family when he died. More recently Scottish author Jackie Kay used the Tipton case as inspiration for her novel Trumpet, which tells the story of Joss Moody, a famous musician living with his wife and adopted son. That book is a sober reminder of the challenges that trans people encounter, but Keyboard Fantasies is a more positive examination of trans lives.

Directed by Posy Dixon, this hour-long documentary focuses on Glenn-Copeland’s music rather than his transition. Dixon lets Glenn-Copeland tell his own story seemingly in just two takes. He takes us quickly from his birth to a musical family to university, McGill in Montreal. First identifying as a lesbian, his parents once tried to force him into treatment, but apart from this incident Canada seems full of good memories. Dropping out of university, Glenn-Copeland was soon recording albums with famous musicians who were awe with his voice and compositions.

Dixon is not interested in telling the story of Glenn-Copeland’s transition. We don’t know when or how it happened. Dixon is keen to reveal another, more musical, turning point in Glenn-Copeland’s life. In the 2010s people around the world suddenly became interested in an album that he had produced in 1986. The album, Keyboard Fantasies, was recorded using an early Atari computer and a drum machine: he released it himself, 200 copies on cassette. Listening to it today the music, as cool as a summer breeze and hopeful as spring, sounds timeless. In a BFI Flare virtual interview Dixon described the synth-folk album as a ‘lullaby from space’.

This new interest led to a tour around Europe, and the last part of Dixon’s films follows Glenn-Copeland on the road with his band of eager and youthful musicians. Dixon lets these musicians speak for themselves, and at first these interviews seem flippant and inconsequential until we hear that Glenn-Copeland’s mission in life is not to make music, but instead to link generations together in order that they learn from each other. From the youthful look of the audiences that come to see him perform, it would appear that his mission is working.

However, for a film about music, Dixon is too impatient, and never lets us hear or see a full song by Glenn-Copeland. Towards the end, Dixon unforgivably places a voiceover on top of the climax of a song that the musician sings for his mother. We get to know the artist, but we never get to know the art. Thankfully, Glenn-Copeland should return to the UK this autumn.

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