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Palm Pictures presents
The Legend of Leigh Bowery (2002)

"I think of all the people I can think of, he's the person who came nearest to living his life as a work of art."
- Stewart Laing

Review By: Robert Edwards  
Published: September 02, 2004

Stars: Leigh Bowery, Nicola Bowery, Sue Tilley, Boy George, Michael Clark, Bella Freud, Richard Torry
Other Stars: Damien Hirst, Cerith Wyn Evans, Tom Bowery, Bronwyn Bowery
Director: Charles Atlas

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, drug talk, language)
Run Time: 01h:22m:31s
Release Date: July 13, 2004
UPC: 031398159049
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AA-B+ A

DVD Review

New York had its Limelight and club kids led by Michael Alig, so brilliantly portrayed in Party Monster, while on the other side of the pond was London's Taboo club, the New Romantics and their putative leader Leigh Bowery. In both cases, the dedication that these demi-mondaines applied to a lifestyle consisting of an endless succession of drug- and sex-fueled club nights was exceeded only by the wild fashion sense and extreme creativity of their leaders.

Bowery was born in Australia into an extremely conservative family, and was always close to his mother, who taught him how to sew, a skill that would prove invaluable in his later life. After a failed attempt to study fashion at college, he packed his bags and moved to London, quickly becoming a fixture on the club scene. It was the time of the New Romantics, kids who dressed themselves in extravagant clothing, sometimes inspired by tradition, but more often by a sense of the outrageous—and Bowery was by far the most outrageous of them all.

Bowery's fashion are difficult to describe, and the jacket of the DVD does little to convey the extreme lengths to which he was willing to go to make a splash. He experimented a lot with body shapes, exaggerating features to gigantic proportions, and sometimes covering his head completely with fabric. He was never interested in designing clothes for others—rather, his fashions were for him alone, and given that he was a rather large man, the impression that he made both in clubs and walking down the street was undoubtedly striking. His girth continued to expand throughout his life, and he sometimes increased his height by wearing platform shoes or stilettos inside other shoes. This reviewer only saw him once in person, at a dance performance, but even at a distance, he cut an imposing and impressive figure.

The Legend of Leigh Bowery wisely ignores most of the biographical details of his life, which are covered in detail in Sue Tilley's excellent book Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times Of An Icon. Instead, it first sets the scene in early 1980s London, then concentrates on Bowery's public persona and fruitful collaborations with other artists. Bowery's association with avant-garde choreographer Michael Clark is covered in some detail, both Bowery's costume designs and his later semi-regular appearances in Clark's dance performances. Bowery later gained some measure of respectability with London's establishment art scene, by sitting for portraits with painter Lucian Freud and performing at the Anthony d'Offay art gallery, and these are illustrated with documentary footage and paintings. Videos and performance clips pepper extensive coverage of Bowery's musical side with the bands Raw Sewage and Minty.

Although the documentary focuses mostly on Bowery's public life, his personal side isn't ignored. Via interviews with his father and sister, his wife Nicola and many friends and acquaintances, we get a vivid impression of this complex and contradictory man. While capable of being kind and charming, Bowery was equally compelled to shock and outrage, not only with his costumes, but also in his daily life, most vividly conveyed in the film by an anecdote about him sitting on a bus in front of a group of old ladies, loudly discussing with a friend his previous evening's sexual encounter with a well-endowed black man.

There are two annoyances with the film. Bits of the interview segments have been edited out, resulting in rather jarring jumps, and any original fullframe material is simply stretched horizontally to fill the widescreen frame. But these are minor niggles—with its wide range of source materials, including photographs, music videos, footage of Bowery's performances, and interviews, this is a great documentary of a fascinating man and his influence on London's arts scene.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The new interview segments look great, with vivid colors and lots of detail, although black levels are a bit wanting. The archival footage varies in quality, but much of it is very good.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is good, and the interviewees are at all times understandable. The musical segments were probably not very hi-fi to begin with, so any limitations in dynamic range and clarity are unlikely to be faults in the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring Nói, demonlover, Millenium Mambo, Morvern Callar, Sex and Lucía, The Eye
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Charles Atlas and Lucy Sexton
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Interviews with Boy George, Leigh's wife (Nicola Bowery), drag queens, the infamous regulars of Club Taboo & more
  2. Special interview with Rosie O'Donnell
  3. Rare Films starring Leigh Bowery by Charles Atlas and Dick Jewell
  4. Performance Pieces: d'Offay Gallery, Fort Asperen (multi-angle)
  5. Extensive photo gallery of Leigh Bowery's outrageous designs
Extras Review: There are 29m:15s of interviews in the Gimme Head(s) section. Bits of these appear in the documentary, but most of the material here is new. Many of them are quite interesting, and some deal with the more squalid side of Bowery's life and the club scene. Particularly affecting is the interview with Bowery's long-time assistant and later wife Nicola, as she describes his sudden illness, rapid decline and death at age 33 due to AIDS. In the 7m:41s Rosie Loves Leigh, Rosie O'Donnell describes her fascination with Leigh Bowery after seeing the play Taboo in London and the difficulties in bringing the play to New York. All of the interviews are anamorphic and look great.

More interesting are the performance clips Headcases, D'Offay Gallery Performance, Fort Asperen Performance, and Leigh, Trojan, Michael and Rachel Get It On. They're all full-frame, and the video sources aren't in the best shape, but this is invaluable documentary material. Undoubtedly the strangest clip here is the multi-angle Fort Asperen Performance in which Bowery, wearing nothing but mid-thigh length tights and clothespins stuck to his nipples and private parts, and suspended upside down by his boots, croons a tune while accompanied by a naked, balloon-covered guitarist. Sure to be a hit at the next PTA get-together.

Producer Lucy Sexton and director Charles Atlas contribute a great commentary track. Atlas met Bowery in the early 80s and they remained friends up until his death, and Sexton was also an acquaintance, so the commentary is filled with personal details that expand greatly upon what's in the film itself. Atlas describes the social context in London and his work with Michael Clark, Bowery and The Fall, describes his visits to Taboo and Bowery's visits to New York. There's a lot of discussion of the development of Bowery's costumes, including his inspirations and collaboration with his assistants, and fascinating details about his performances and close friendship with Lucian Freud. The first few minutes are difficult to decipher, since the volume is way too low, but that's quickly resolved and the remainder is clear.

The trailers are all nonanamorphic, many of them extremely grainy and riddled with compression artifacts. Palm Pictures has a great selection of films, but they aren't doing themselves any favors by presenting their trailers in such a substandard fashion.

One bit of fun is that their are multiple versions of each of the menus, done in wildly varying styles, and you can never predict which version you'll get next. The DVD is packaged in a clear keepcase, with two great pictures of Bowery and a chapter listing visible on the inside.

One might have wished for the entirety of Atlas' film Hail the New Puritan (excerpted here as Leigh, Trojan, Michael and Rachel Get It On), more extensive footage of Bowery in Michael Clark's dance performances, or music videos by The Fall featuring Bowery, but all in all this is a great collection of extras.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Charles Atlas' The Legend of Leigh Bowery is a great portrait of one of the former leading lights of London's fashion and club scenes. Drawing on a diverse selection of source materials, it emphasizes Bowery's outlandish design creations and his artistic collaborations, and is an excellent introduction to the man and his work.


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