I first saw Leigh Bowery in the late 80s. I was at the cinema when a commercial for Pepe Jeans was played featuring Leigh. This advert which only lasted about 2 minutes left such an indelible impression.
I first saw the documentary The Legend of Leigh Bowery about five years ago and again was gobsmacked. This is amazingly made with a multitude of interviews with collaborators, family and friends. The breadth of the source material of footage and audio featuring Bowery is breathtaking- this project was obviously a labour of love and the director Charles Atlas throws himself into the making of this documentary with gusto and passion. And it shows.
Who was Leigh Bowery? He is hard to categorise. Artist, fashion designer, pop star, musician, nightclub proprietor/superstar… But most importantly he was Leigh Bowery the personality. He defies all labels. And this is one of the most brilliant things about him and the multitude of ways that the documentary conveys this.
The film shows how Leigh became recognised firstly by his outlandish patronage of carefully chosen nightclubs. Because of this the film becomes so much more. It depicts the underground gay clubbing scene of the 80s in London- a world that spawned the New Romantics (in an interview we hear Leigh say that he always preferred this movement to any other) and was built around the idea of transforming oneself into a legendary entity and the whole ritual of ‘getting ready’ to go out (brilliantly articulated by Michael Bracewell in the film) and all that that entails. From a dingy bedsit in the suburbs arty loners could metamorphosise into larger than life characters and create new personae for their chosen nocturnal wonderlands in the neon soaked big city.
London in the 70s and 80s was unparalleled for this- after glam rock and punk, the New Romantic scene had exploded in a mushroom cloud of Elnett and Boots No 5 make up. And that was just the boys. It attracted brilliant creations such as Marilyn, Philip Sallon and Steve Strange.
Whilst this scene and its main stalwarts were brilliant and revolutionary for their time, Leigh was so much more. He was a one man subculture who was still several hundred years ahead of his time. He liked to subvert- gender, the body, sexuality. This documentary depicts this amazingly. Leigh liked to use his body as a canvas and this film is like a catwalk for him to show the world the diversity of his alien visions.
Leigh’s personality and quirks are also evident through the wide range of sources and interviews used for the film- his love of embarrassing people, his love of cottaging (also a key part of 80s gay life), his love of getting a reaction from people but through using his brain rather than just using shock tactics for the sake of it.
There is also a feeling that whatever he turned his hand to he mastered brilliantly. His pop groups Raw Sewage and Minty have to be heard (and seen) to be believed. Here is his genius cover version of Run DMC’s Walk This Way-
And heres how it came about-
Another amazing thing about this film is the music used on the soundtrack- its just as avant garde and original as Bowery. Its a shame that a soundtrack was never released.
In these times of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its imitation of all that was genius that has gone before I can’t help but cherish Bowery’s work and this film even more. He was authentic and that authenticity is even more astounding when watered down versions by more mediocre and conventional drag artistes are foisted upon us. Imitation isn’t the sincerest form of flattery. Its just really shit.
I’ve now seen this documentary several times and think of it as a film I could watch at any time and thoroughly enjoy. I honestly think this is one of the best examples of the genre and one of the best films I’ve ever seen. I urge others to discover this gem and experience the genius of Bowery for themselves. And here it is-