It’s admirable that Jobriath A.D. treats its subject—glamorous ’70s wannabe superstar Jobriath—with such admiration and importance, even though history hasn’t done the same. From a commercial standpoint, Jobriath was a belly flop that barely made a ripple, more important as a lesson in the futility of hype than as a songwriter or performer. As such, Jobriath A.D. doesn’t have a huge hook to hang its story on: Like thousands before him, the former Bruce Wayne Campbell dreamed of being a superstar, and he had the talent to make that dream seem plausible. But he took a shot and missed.
The documentary details Jobriath’s singing life from his time with the L.A. and New York productions of Hair to the invention of his persona—a space age, Bowie-indebted “true fairy” whose classical piano training underscored his rock-opera ambitions. The invention of that character was done in tandem with manager/would-be svengali Jerry Brandt, an over-the-top music-biz character who sunk his life and reputation into making Jobriath a star. The two agreed to an Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker-styled relationship, where they’d be equal partners, but Brandt’s personality overshadowed Jobriath’s immediately, to the point where the former was doing all the talking—and over-promising—to the press.
Jobriath’s crazy, Gaga-esque costumes were a flop on his first televised performance, and virtually no one bought his debut album. The operating theory from some of Jobriath A.D.’s talking heads is that the world wasn’t ready for an openly gay pop star: People were happy to embrace Freddie Mercury and Liberace as long as they were cagey about what they revealed. (And the public loved androgynous straight guys even more.) Jobriath was too flamboyant for the gay crowd and the straight crowd, it’s posited. (The idea that Jobriath’s music just wasn’t that special isn’t even offered. This is a group convinced there was unheralded genius at work.)
Things ended badly for Jobriath; the film notes at the outset that the musician died in 1983. He retreated to his mother’s house in Pennsylvania—that relationship is the most interesting in the film, though her feelings are represented by Jobriath’s brother—and eventually returned to New York and reinvented himself as a sort of winking piano-bar cad, Cole Berlin. Shortly thereafter, he died of complications from AIDS (coincidentally the same week that singer Klaus Nomi, himself the subject of a far more compelling documentary, The Nomi Song, also died of AIDS-related illness). But because Jobriath himself was so elusive—there are almost no archival interviews with him included here, presumably because they don’t exist—Jobriath A.D. itself seems elusive. Jobriath’s family and friends admired him, but nobody seemed to know him all that well. It’s easy to believe that he knocked down walls for gay musicians that followed him—some are quickly interviewed in the last few minutes of the movie—but the argument that his music itself was important and groundbreaking almost seems like an afterthought. Jobriath A.D. is a tragic and occasionally fascinating look at pop stardom in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but its subject seems just barely compelling enough to sustain it.