CAST: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Ira Hawkins, Stephanie McVay, Tom Bloom, Justin Lonesome, Thom Hilton, Shanessa Sweeney, Bryant Carroll, Shelby Garrett, Catherine Albers, Dave Sorboro, Roshon Thomas, Annie Kitral, Eric Eisenbrey, Jonah Blechman, Cheryl Talley-Sharp, Ray Perrin
RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
BASICALLY…: A retired hairdresser (Kier) ventures across town to fulfil a dead woman’s wish…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Udo Kier, the 77-year-old German character actor, has seemingly worked with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Dario Argento over the years, yet has never been cast in a proper lead role until now. Credit is due to writer-director Todd Stephens, then, whose left-field choice to play the flamboyant protagonist of his new film Swan Song (a very different movie from last year’s Mahershala Ali weepie of the same name) finally gives Kier a leading part that’s worthy of his strange on-screen magnitude, his thousand-yard stare and permanent scowl – which once haunted viewers in movies that weren’t even horror-related – now put to effective use in this charming, if somewhat slight, character study.
Kier plays Pat Pitsenbarger, who was once a renowned hairdresser and stylist in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, but now waits out the rest of his days in a retirement home, obsessively folding napkins and sneaking in more than a couple of cigarillos every now and then. One day, he is approached by the lawyer of wealthy former client Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), who has just died and had stipulated in her will that Pat style her hair for the open-casket funeral; Pat is initially reluctant to make a return to the spotlight, but is eventually tempted to retrace his glory days, and makes the journey towards the funeral home where Rita’s body is displayed. Pat makes several stops along the way, not just to gather hairdressing supplies but also to revisit aspects of his past, from bitter rival hairdressers to the final resting place of his beloved partner, as well as discovering what the gay scene is currently like in modern-day Sandusky.
Swan Song is mostly a reminiscing movie, the kind where the main protagonist comes face to face with some of the (occasionally literal) ghosts of their past, while simultaneously coming to terms with some of their own mistakes and flaws. In that regard, Stephens’ film hardly resets the bar, going through the motions you’d expect to see in a movie like this, but it’s handled effectively enough with a fair amount of warmth within its core, and some sincerity to the writing that allows Pat and other supporting characters the chance to feel humanised throughout. The structure is rather episodic, following Pat as he goes from one place to another in this rather rundown town – including a Black-owned salon, his former home that’s now been reduced to just a spot of land, and a failing gay bar that’s about to put out the stops for its final night – which dilutes the narrative to a point where you can barely call it much of a plot to begin with, so you are mostly just watching a loosely connected series of moments instead of a more concrete order. Again, though, it’s not as though the material itself is lacking in any sense of charm or sweetness; it’s just that it isn’t tied together as closely as it perhaps ought to have been.
It’s fortunate, then, that we have Udo Kier’s fabulous central performance to lead us through the wobbly structure. Kier commands every second he’s on-screen, which is practically all of the seconds, in a turn that really leaves you in awe of this larger-than-life character – said to have been inspired by a real-life Sandusky icon – and his catty wit which charms just about everyone he encounters here. His performance is so good that he can make even some of the film’s cornier moments (of which, suffice to say, there are a few) feel dignified, because Kier has such a magnetic presence to him which demands respect at all times, not to mention he feels energised in ways not seen in this actor in a number of recent years, so the more conventional methods that Stephens puts forth in his script and direction are given the necessary amount of weight that they otherwise lack.
It’s clear that Kier is having a blast in this movie, and benefits from Stephen’s sensitive filmmaking which gives him plenty of material to work with within the confides of a more standard narrative pattern. That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily call Swan Song a great movie; a good one, certainly, but nothing that’s going to become known for being a new classic in LGBTQ+ cinema. There are still structural bumps and moments of corniness, as mentioned earlier, not to mention a conclusion which feels like a bit too much even for this kind of movie, which doesn’t make it an entirely smooth ride. However, it does have a good amount of warmth to it, not to mention a fabulous lead turn by a prolific but still somehow underappreciated character actor, who really does save most of the movie from falling too far underneath his shadow.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Swan Song is a warm-hearted reminiscing comedy-drama that gives character actor Udo Kier not just his first true lead role but also a fabulously entertaining and endearing one, which easily carries the movie through a rough and slight episodic structure that occasionally gets a bit too corny for its own good, but still just about holds together by writer-director Todd Stephens’ strong sincerity.