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SXSW 2021: “Swan Song” Film Review

“Swan Song” opens with the statement “Inspired by a true icon.” As disco music plays, you see a man known as Mister Pat (Udo Kier) come out from behind a stage curtain dressed to the nines, apparently for an empty theater. That’s quickly replaced with Mister Pat’s (real name: Pat Pitsenbarger) current reality: the dull gray of a nursing home.

It’s quite the start for this movie, written and directed by Todd Stephens, about one man who made an impact in Sandusky, Ohio. While the film basically starts out in a nursing home in which the day-to-day life seems mostly unchanging, it isn’t too long before there’s a bit of a shake-up. A lawyer named Walter Shanrock (Tom Bloom) arrives to inform Pat that one of his old clients died, and it’s in her will that she’d like Pat to do her hair and makeup for the funeral; this is where we find out that Pat was a popular stylist in his day. At first, Pat turns the job down, telling Shanrock to “bury her with bad hair.”

But when Pat has a change of heart, that’s when the movie truly begins. It’s a bit of an adventure movie, as well as a coming-of-age or rebirth for the twilight years of life. He escapes the nursing home to get to Sandusky so he can do the job — and returning to his old stomping grounds (plus discovering how much has changed) becomes a part of his journey.

Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) in “Swan Song” | Photo Credit: Chris Stephens

Stephens and his cinematographer, Jackson Warner, do a fantastic job of showing off Sandusky and the surrounding areas. There are some great landscape shots of seemingly endless crops overlaid with footage of Pat walking down the center of an open road. You get a sense of what Sandusky is like from the buildings and signage, as well as from the people Pat meets. He is picked up as a hitchhiker by a woman in a pickup truck, and their conversation feels very organic, not at all like recited lines. The place (and its people) have a rural, small-town feel that can feel kitschy or overdone in movies, but it’s clear that Stephens is recreating something real here.

It seems that a recurring theme in “Swan Song” is the disconnect between gay culture of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and gay culture today. They have plenty in common, including drag shows like the one in the last act of the movie, but Pat knows that gay men in the 2010s and beyond will never know the struggles he faced, including having a life partner who died of AIDS in the days when their relationship could never have been legitimate in the eyes of the law (and society at large). “‘Swan Song’ is a love letter to the rapidly disappearing ‘gay culture’ of America. As it has become more acceptable to be queer, what used to be a thriving community is rapidly melting back into society,” says Stephens.

Kier is fantastic as a charming older man whom one character refers to as “the Liberace of Sandusky.” He certainly hasn’t kept up with modern times, but he does have a story (or snarky remark) to tell to everyone he meets. The actor brings a somberness to the role when it’s called for, but he mostly gets to shine as a troublemaking senior with lots of style and sass.

L-R: Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge) and Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) in “Swan Song” | Photo Credit: Chris Stephens

Throughout his journeys in the town, he happens upon friends and nemeses alike. The latter include his protégé, Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), who later betrayed him by becoming his competition. Their rivalry is felt in every look they give each other. The woman he came to town for, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), was one of his dearest friends, and their falling out isn’t explained until close to the film’s end. On the other hand, he also finds his old friend Eunice (Ira Hawkins), who he seemingly remained on good terms with, and they’re able to pick up a conversation as if no time has passed at all.

Aside from the wonderful writing, cinematography and performances, this movie also has a knockout soundtrack. Featuring artists from Judy Garland and Robyn to Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey, every needle drop in “Swan Song” has its perfect place, and the music feels so connected to the characters and the story that Stephens wants to tell.

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