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Brothers of the Head   B

IFC Films / FilmFour

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
Writer: Tony Grisoni (based on the novel by Brian Aldiss)
Cast: Harry Treadaway, Luke Treadaway, Bryan Dick, Sean Harris, Tania Emery, Diana Kent, Tom Bower, David Kennedy.

Review by Rob Vaux

Every rock band has an element of the freak show to it. The posing, the spectacle, the "Hey, look at me!" narcissism inherent in popular music... all of it requires a certain touch of the grotesque. Examples appear in every band that's ever stepped on stage: Elvis in his jumpsuits, KISS in their makeup, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, David Bowie's various incarnations -- and of course the Sex Pistols, who so perfected their particular brand of Barnum & Bailey obscenity that they really didn't need anything else. With Brothers of the Head, directors Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton take that notion to its logical extreme, positing what might happen if a rock band were fronted by... conjoined twins.

The notion is so absurdly fitting that one wonders why some scuzzbag hasn't thought of it before. All notions of propriety and discretion fled the scene about the time Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin; these days, we're overwhelmed by increasingly desperate promoters trying increasingly deranged stunts in order to capture the public's increasingly fractured attention. "Lip-syncing scandals? Wardrobe malfunctions? Hey, what about Siamese twins?! Let's see Marilyn Manson top that!" Pepe and Fulton start with such logic as a basis (from a novel by Brian Aldiss and a screenplay by Tony Grisoni), and then adroitly speculate on how such shamelessness would affect those who participate in it. They utilize a faux-documentary style (which is fitting since their background lies in actual documentaries) to capture the story of Barry and Tom Howe (real-life brothers Luke and Harry Treadaway), who were born joined at the stomach and are discovered on a remote British island by a rock producer interested in "something new." Amid the increasing decadence of the mid-1970s, the twins seem like an ideal choice to grab some headlines and spin out a few hits. They're quickly transferred to a cloistered estate, where they receive a modicum of training and are surrounded by people who ensure that they won't screw up. Some lessons are harder than others, and the abuse rarely stops at the verbal. Yet their sound touches on the first stirrings of the punk movement, and their conjoined status attracts the sort of "Is this for real?" attention that their handlers had hoped.

Pepe and Fulton take the time to think the premise through, producing all of the fictitious trappings necessary to let us believe that the Howes and their band Bang Bang might have actually emerged on the scene some 30 years ago. The fabricated interviews with ex-bandmates, managers, and groupies are to be expected, but Brothers of the Head provides more surprising elements as well, such as a "never-finished" fictional film about the brothers (starring Jonathan Pryce and directed by Ken Russell, both playing themselves). The directors' vérité instincts create a potent sense of reality, capturing intimate moments of the band in rehearsal, the wild atmosphere of their early club dates, and the schisms and prejudices (including the inevitable arrival of a Yoko Ono) that ultimately lead to their downfall. Most of it has appeared in other rock sagas before -- particularly in The Filth and the Fury, whose raw portrait of the Sex Pistols finds eerie reverberations in the club scenes here -- leading to a slight blunting of the filmmakers' ostensible purpose.

And yet, none of those other films have conjoined twins to fall back on. Like the on-screen producers who exploit them, Pepe and Fulton have a trump card in their subjects, which allows the directors to add sharp psychological depth to what otherwise might have been a snazzy Behind the Music episode. We've seen figures like the Howes before, in efforts ranging from Tod Browning's Freaks (whose real-life conjoined twins receive a tip of the cap here) to the Polish Brothers' Twin Falls Idaho to the Farrellys' good-hearted Stuck on You. But the standard-issue temptations of a rock star -- the drugs, the girls, the monstrous sense of entitlement -- put the condition to a unique trial. The Howes are not two halves of a single person, though they share a body (and to some extent a mind). They each have their own needs and desires, and their own way of determining the best way of moving forward. Tom seems happy to do as he's told, while the wilder Barry sports a more rebellious streak. The stress of performing -- and of all the debauchery that their newfound stardom presents -- threatens to tear them apart. And yet they can't be separated, which only fuels their rage and the onstage defiance that their growing cult of fans adores. Watching the film, one wonders what Lennon and McCartney would have done if they were fused together like the Howes. Brothers of the Head provides a fascinating and moderately unsettling answer to that hypothetical question.

That said, it still bears the earmarks of many rock-and-roll stories that have come before. We can sense the coming conflicts, and chart the rise-and-fall pace that marks the genre. Musical biopics -- even fictitious ones -- have a well-worn rhythm that this film falls back on a little too easily. But like their subjects, Pepe and Fulton have a grand notion to set them apart, and to their credit they work hard to make it more than just a gimmick. The Howes have depth and humanity, and their story is eerily plausible. In Pepe and Fulton's hands, Brothers of the Head becomes an odd yet undeniably memorable exploration of fame's darker shadows.

Review published 07.26.2006.

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