Swan Song (2021) Magnolia Releasing
Directed By: Todd Stephens
Starring: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Urie, Roshon Thomas, Annie Kitral and Eric Eisenbrey.
Plot Summary: Legendary actor Udo Kier stars as retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger, who escapes the confines of his small-town Sandusky, Ohio nursing home after learning of his former client’s dying wish for him to style her final hairdo. Soon, Pat embarks on an odyssey to confront the ghosts of his past – and collect the beauty supplies necessary for the job. SWAN SONG is a comical and bittersweet journey about rediscovering one’s sparkle, and looking gorgeous while doing so.
Before I dive into this review, I feel like some context is needed. Todd Stephen came onto the film scene with his screenplay for Edge of Seventeen (1998), a sweet coming-of-age story about a Queer youth in 1984. He followed this up with his directorial debut Gypsy 83 in 2001 and then Another Gay Movie (2006). It was the latter that caught my attention, myself being barely in my twenties, out on my own and exploring my sexual identity. This outrageous teen-comedy satire was followed up by an even zanier sequel appropriately titled Another Gay Teen Sequel (2008). After that, Todd Stephen went MIA from films. That is until he re-surfaced with 2021’s Swan Song.
After seeing this movie, it makes me happy that Mr. Stephens is back on the indie film scene right where he belongs. Clearly, the director has not lost his touch for telling great stories that focus the narrative on richly drawn Queer characters. You no doubt can tell from the trailer that Swan Song is at times surreal. Thankfully, Todd never veers too far into the absurd. The film keeps a consistent tone that is bitter-sweet and heartbreaking, but at its core, there is something ultimately optimistic. I also liked how the movie tackled this idea of Queer youth being able to learn from elder gays. It also isn’t shy about talking about the struggles of the previous generation of gay men who had to live with the devasting loss and fear from AIDS. Obviously, there is no cure for the disease (though treatment is vastly improved), future generations have less of a stigma surrounding it. Swan Song also talks about forgiveness and letting go of the past and moving on. In the movie, Pat begins this experience looking very slubby, but with each visit he makes, he ‘levels up’ getting new pieces to his wardrobe. This is a fun and very interesting metaphor for the character and his journey.
Visually, the movie is stunning with a quirky production design by Kassandra DeAngelis and polished photography by Jackson Warner Lewis. The real glue of this movie is of course the one, the only Udo Kier. The legendary German born actor delivers what can only be described as a heartbreaking tour-de-force. His performance is the emotional core of this film, and he brings a sass, a warmth and complex range that only comes from decades of experience. Jennifer Coolidge gives a career high in a small but impactful role. Linda Evens comes out of semi-retirement and, like Coolidge, gives a tender, layered performance. Swan Song also has a fantastic supporting cast including Michael Urie, Roshon Thomas, Annie Kitral and Eric Eisenbrey.
For writer director Todd Stephens, I certainly hope Swan Song isn’t to be taken in the literal as I would love to see more honest, quirky, and ultimately beautifully heartbreaking films that speak to a Queer audience but don’t alienate a wider audience. Swan Song is a stunning return for this interesting voice in indie cinema.
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Big film nerd and TCM Obsessed. Author of The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema from Schiffer Publishing. Resume includes: AMC’s The Bite, Scream Magazine etc. Love all kinds of movies and television and have interviewed a wide range of actors, writers, producers and directors. I currently am a regular co-host on the podcast The Humanoids from the Deep Dive and have a second book in the works from Bear Manor.
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‘Swan Song’ Review – ‘Udo Kier is a heartbreaking tour-de-force, Jennifer Coolidge gives a career high’