Dressed As A Girl


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dressed As A Girl
"Although it's as uneven as the make-up, this film has moments of brilliance."

Drag is always at its most interesting when it's in decline. The glamour, the fabulous costumes, the bright lights and the dancing are fun for a while, but what gives it heart and soul is the seediness underneath, the unfulfilled dreams, all the sweeter for being unrealistic in the first place. No-one sings a siren song quite like a drugged-up C-lister. In many ways, it's just like Hollywood.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the London scene, which even outclasses L.A. wen it comes to studied, sparkling shallowness. The danger of making a documentary about this is that it's all too easy to end up skimming over the surface, especially with a star like Jonny Woo, who habitually works hard to paper over the cracks and who is such a smooth showgirl that it's difficult to connect with the person. Diector Rothbart, however, stubbornly persists, and although it's as uneven as the make-up, this film has moments of brilliance. Interweaving the stories of various members of Jonny's troupe, it produces a surprisingly effective portrait of queer lives sill lived on the margins, people unable or unwilling to fit into the small amount of space that society has finally, grudgingly given to those who are different.

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In between the cheesy, Friday night TV cabaret-style montages (with a bit more nudity but little evidence of the wit some of these performers are famed for), we get to meet the stars offstage. There's Scottee, who has recently found he can only make art about tragedy, recounting youthful liaisons with strangers and the constant fear of the police; Holestar, self-proclaimed tranny with a fanny, coming to terms with disability and the fickleness of supposed friends as she tries to rebuild her career; Amber, transitioning to life as a woman and trying to rebuild her relationship with her dad whilst her friends wander the streets trying to raise money to buy her some breasts. There's talk of AIDS and of aliens, there's drunken laughter at Glastonbury, freeform games of gay bingo and telling the Nazi Pope to fuck off. Life is full of incidents and accidents and the stage helps, for a while. Then there's the fight to be sober, and wondering about what comes afterwards - can one keep it going after reaching the dreaded age of 45?

Of course one can. People have been doing it for centuries, but there's no history in this documentary; we are locked in an eternal present. It's the same illusion created by the stage, and the drugs, and London, ever hungry London. Nothing here is new but it's safer to keep imagining it that way. Turning tricks when the lights go down, always struggling to get by, making art for life's sake, never earning much - existing, in fact, in a space idealised by many outsiders, delivering performances that are truly pure. Unfortunately we don't really get to see them and if you've never felt the pull of the stage yourself you'll have to take the participants' word for it.

The film's presentation of gender is important. Far from confusing drag with being trans, a common misconception, it illustrates the difference - the fun of dressing up versus the need to be oneself - but it also acknowledges the overlap, the way some people come to understand deeper feelings through what they do on stage. There's room for gender expressions beyond male and female, and for an exploration of the intersection between gender and sexuality that's never preachy, simply observational. In this artificial world there are spaces where it's safe to be real.

There's some good material here and the tone is interesting, but Dressed As A Girl really needs stronger editing. It might help those unfamiliar with the business to understand a little better, but it never really achieves its potential.

Reviewed on: 24 Sep 2015
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A documentary about some of London's most celebrated drag queens.
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Director: Colin Rothbart

Writer: Colin Rothbart

Starring: Jonny Woo, Holestar, Scottee

Year: 2014

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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