Swan Song, 2021.
Written and Directed by Todd Stephens.
Starring Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Ira Hawkins, Stephanie McVay, Tom Bloom, Thom Hilton, Roshon Thomas, Annie Kitral, Eric Eisenbrey, Dave Sorboro, Bryant Carroll, Shanessa Sweeney, Ray Perrin, Catherine L. Albers, Shelby Garrett, Jonah Blechman, and Richard Strauss.
A formerly flamboyant hairdresser takes a long walk across a small town to style a dead woman’s hair.
Udo Kier has long been an underappreciated character actor, a German treasure typically up to something eccentrically entertaining no matter how small the role is. Here, for writer and director Todd Stephens, he has a leading role and gives easily one of the most brilliant performances among his lengthy career; it’s the kind of turn that baffles one into wondering how he doesn’t have an Oscar or hasn’t at least been nominated for one. Digressing, Swan Song sees Udo Kier stepping into the shoes (and one hell of a glitzy wardrobe) of the real-life gay fashionista, beautician, and hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger.
Although, this is long past the glory days as Pat now lives inside of an assisted-living facility, seemingly not finding much joy in life as he observes those around him, such as a wheelchair-bound elderly woman who soils herself midway through a conversation (a term I’m using loosely here), with Jackson Warner Lewis’s cinematography angling down towards the floor as the urine trips and drips, devastatingly driving home just how sad a place this is alongside the fears of growing old. As to be expected, the color palette is rather dour and bleak here, adding on to what must be a miserable living situation (albeit among a few friendly people).
Nevertheless, news is brought to Pat that his favorite client and long-time friend Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans) has passed away and that her one final request is for him to give her a special touch-up for the wake. It’s also stated in her will that upon completion of the task, Pat would receive $25,000, so the financial motivation is there, but he is still hesitant and initially declines. After contemplating whether or not to go through with it, Pat decides to head back out into the world, seemingly more for the proposition of getting away from his current depressing reality.
What follows is a film strikingly sharing a lot in common with Pig, the latest Nicolas Cage movie where he plays a legendary chef forced to leave his cabin in the woods and go back into Portland searching for his kidnapped oinker. Much like how that movie showed a city that mostly still bows to his mere presence, the wealthy town of Sandusky still has a great deal of admiration for Pat, as he has interactions with former gay friends, a rival hilariously played by Jennifer Coolidge, and Rita’s son who has heard nothing but good things. The difference is that here, there’s also plenty of people (including younger generations of gay people that hang out at a drag bar Pat and his friends once frequented every night) that have no idea who he is. Even some of his preferred beauty products to work with have been discontinued and must be hunted down (similar to the food ingredients towards the end of Pig).
There is also a touching emotional angle, as Pat visits the gravestone of his lover David, who died during the height of the AIDS crisis. Lovingly still wearing jewelry gifted to him, Pat also takes the memory of his partner everywhere he goes, talking about David to random strangers during hitchhiking rides (including a Jesus lover that could be holding back some choice bigoted words, or maybe accepts it). Among those destinations is his house that has been torn down, destroying other memories, a beauty salon now run by Black women giving him advice, and the aforementioned bar where Pat also gets to put on one last glamorous show (you might never see a chandelier the same way again).
The one thing he doesn’t seem to be doing is Rita’s hair, partly because we come to learn that the friendship was a complicated one where she didn’t necessarily support his sexuality. In other words, she was both a close-minded Conservative woman but still appears to have treated him with much respect and appreciated the beautiful work he did. As Pat learns more about her son, the dynamic is only made more complex, as does wandering about seeing how broadly accepted and mainstream homosexuality is nowadays (one of the most heartwarming aspects of the film).
Swan Song is a tender celebration of gay culture with themes of grief, loss, and forgiveness, exploring different generations of queerness. And while it might sound like heavy and dramatic material, the proceedings also carry sparks of humor (there’s a sequence where Pat is holding up traffic riding down the street in a motorized wheelchair that generates some extended laughs) and killer costume design. Udo Kier is at the center of it all, balancing a story that could have stuck to flamboyance, oddness, and eccentricity, treating the beautiful script from Todd Stephens also with the emotional sincerity it deserves. Swan Song is most likely going to fly under the radar, which is a shame because there is incredible character work here.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com