After a decade-plus spent on New York’s crepuscular cabaret scene through the ’90s, singer Antony Hegarty began to make his way towards the light. His backing band took their name from the African American transgender street activist Marsha P. Johnson—who herself took her surname from the restaurant on 42nd Street where she used to turn tricks in Times Square. Antony and the Johnsons released an album on David Tibet’s label in 2000, before their 2005 album, I Am a Bird Now (featuring duets with Lou Reed, Boy George and Rufus Wainwright), brought greater acclaim to Hegarty. When he received the UK’s coveted Mercury Prize, Europe embraced him, and soon after Hegarty set about on a whirlwind tour in 2006 — culminating in a performance at the Barbican. This concert is the focus of Turning, a new documentary by director Charles Atlas and Antony opening this week in New York City at the IFC Center.
Turning isn’t quite your conventional tour doc though. Little light is cast upon the idiosyncratic figure of Antony himself, or on his band, much less on the rigors of life lived on the road (though there is a scene where you can spot Antony wrapped in a “Brooklyn” hoodie). Rather, Atlas trains his camera almost solely upon Antony’s entourage, a baker’s dozen of colorful characters from that realm Antony embraced and embodied throughout the 1990s, as AIDS wreaked havoc on the art and queer communities of lower Manhattan.
We see the band play in shadow and these models elevated on a slowly rotating pedestal, with Atlas’s cameras creating intimate portraits of these figures, carefully layering their profiles into a gorgeous abstraction of the human body. A changing of the gendered body resides at the core of Turning, a familiar subject for Atlas with his previous film being The Legend of Leigh Bowery.Many of Antony’s muses displayed in the film are transgender, some are men transitioning into women (with one woman moving towards the masculine), while others have other kinds of transformations to share, and Antony interviews each of them to reveal their stories.
These portraits comprise the heart of Turning, and it is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting one. The intimate interviews reveal common threads: childhood trauma, familial damage, sexual confusion, social pariah status, dreams of suicide for escape. And yet in art, in accepting and acknowledging their queerness comes a light, a reason for these misfits to live. It’s an intense film (imagine the interviews from Paris is Burning made feature-length) but in the end, Antony epitomizes the film’s intent with a brief pep talk to his entourage to keep two words in mind: “dignity and beauty.”