‘Angelheaded Hipster’ Film Review: Marc Bolan’s Legend Dominates Tribute-Album Documentary

·5-min read
Tribeca Film Festival

At the outset of Ethan Silverman’s documentary “Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex,” Billy Idol relays an anecdote about Marc Bolan — the magnetic songwriter and frontman of the English glam rock band T. Rex — getting booed by a crowd of 175,000 at a festival in 1971.

If you’ve heard of Bolan or even heard a single song by T. Rex (you have), it’s no surprise that the anecdote ends with Bolan melting the crowd’s faces with an hour of his churning, groovy guitars and sensually laconic singing, battering his guitar strings with a tambourine and receiving a 15-minute standing ovation in the process.

That’s just the kind of rock star Marc Bolan was, and his charisma is still so powerful, 45 years after his death at the age of 30, that it threatens to derail the focus of the documentary. That focus is ostensibly about the recording of a cover album of T. Rex songs, “Angelheaded Hipster,” produced by the late Hal Willner (who died of complications from COVID-19 in 2020).

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Willner states that he wants to venerate Bolan for his abilities has a songwriter and composer, not for his notorious rocker persona, which has already been covered. But what a persona it was: cheeky, intelligent, seductive, and insightful all at once; his voice able to cut through the posturing of the ‘70s glam rock scene in England, knowing full well that everyone else stole his look. Yes, Bolan was the first rocker to bring glitter and eyeliner to the masses, apologies to his dear friend and sometimes rival David Bowie.

Producer Willner assembled an all-star lineup to cover Bolan and T. Rex’s greatest hits, including U2, Nick Cave, Joan Jett, Beth Orton and more to unpack the genius of his songwriting and composing. Hearing all the T. Rex hits one after the other is a reminder of how many incredible songs the band recorded, each one capable of evoking such a certain mood and tone; it’s no wonder T. Rex is employed so often as a needle-drop in ‘70s-set films and television.

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Wilner and, by extension Silverman want to examine why and how the music works as these great artists take on Bolan’s songs. Willner’s goal is to get everyone together and create “a happening,” as they said in the ‘60s, and there is magic to be found in that recording studio. Nick Cave recording his slowed-down version of “Cosmic Dancer” in the studio with full strings is spine-chilling to witness, and Cave speaks beautifully about Bolan’s talent for lyrics, his ability to use language and imagery in his songwriting.

One hopes for every recording piece to be as special as Cave’s, and there are some gems — including Macy Gray finding the tempo of her reggae version of “Children of the Revolution” and Bono wondering about how to make his vocal on “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” more “sexy, spooky” — but again, there’s that pesky rock star and his compelling personality looming in the background. Everyone just wants to share a lovely or funny story about Bolan, or to talk about what he meant to them, whether it’s Beth Orton or Joe Elliott reminiscing about the first times they saw him on TV, or Joan Jett remarking that she listened to the song she’s working on, “Jeepster,” a million times as a teenager.

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Silverman makes good use of the wealth of archival footage at hand, weaving Bolan’s performances of his songs into the recordings of the covers, using interview footage and photographs as well. There’s some lovely moments with Rolan Bolan, Marc’s son with singer Gloria Jones, who is intimately involved with the production of the “Angelheaded Hipster” album.

At times, the back and forth between the album recording and the archival material that charts Bolan’s life and career can be a bit jarring. While audio interviews are put to great use easing these transitions, there’s not, for example, any buffer between singer-songwriter Maria McKee and Willner talking about pie, and a leap back in time to Bolan going electric. The push and pull between the contemporary events and the historical are illustrative of the film’s inherent conflict between wanting to showcase the music in a modern form (which is lovely but, frankly, not that riveting), and the rollicking, all-too-short life of Bolan, who invented glam rock, broke boundaries with his androgyny, wrote Tolkien-inspired poetry, and had aims of directing films, to say nothing about his childhood career as a mod model, which is given all of 30 seconds of screen time.

The film is at once a great advertisement for the album, which came out in 2020, and a loving remembrance of Bolan, a genius from whom music poured forth freely. One can’t help but wish that Silverman had picked a lane, and that that lane was focused on Bolan, an utterly fascinating creature and a light that burned so brightly for the brief time he was here.

“Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

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