Film When Breaking Glass, the 1980s rock musical that launched Hazel O’Connor’s career was released in the US, after a typically disastrous preview screening, the distributors removed the final two scenes. In the British version newly released on DVD, after an inevitably epic production number, the film slips into surrealism before shifting into a somewhat understated, melancholy but hope denouement. The US version ends with just the rock concert, entirely ignoring that it fails to resolve the main thread of the story, how even the most anarchic of singers will inevitably be co-opted by the record company, their message and self expression disingenuously becoming another means to part the public with their cash.
But such is the dichotomy at the heart of the film. On the one hand it’s as commercial a piece of work as most of these things tend to be, applying a transitorily popular music genre onto a fairly rote run through of the rags to riches genre. But on the other it manages to capture the atmosphere of the time, the creative squats, social unrest due to an economic downturn and disillusionment of the post-punk era. Partly time has provided some of this lustre, but reading around online, it’s apparent that even in the original release period, for some, it was a rallying point for some sections of the youth, even if in a circular motion, some of the story would be reflected in real life.
Originally written for a male character, Hazel O’Connor impressed the producers so much that the script was rewritten to accommodate her and she was contracted to write the songs, her own experiences becoming part of the script. Like Kate, she attempted to get noticed by pasting posters up outside venues and on the London Underground and found herself signed to a record company on a draconian contract. During the making of the film she contracted bronchitis due to filming conditions, her method of medication, a syringe in the rear became a minor part of the script. While it’s a stretch to call this biography, there a few rock musicals in which the star’s own story is so tied to the material.
Which is presumably why O’Connor is so magnetic. In her first acting role, she has that natural presence which musicians often have in films, but it’s underpinned by real dimension especially in the later stages when she has to communicate the decimation of Kate personality. She obviously as her most compelling when performing, her face often contorted face caked in clown make-up, her attitude prefiguring Daryl Hannah's replicant in Blade Runner. When in the finale she appears in a bodysuit covered in florescent electric circuit boards like an analogue Tron girl, it's as though she's literally become absorbed in The Matrix. O'Connor herself would spend much of the rest of her career extricating herself from a similar system re-appropriating the rights to her own music.
She’s helped immeasurably by some wonderful chemistry with Phil Daniels as her record producer in one of his earliest “wideboy with a heart” roles. If the story loses cohesion in its final third, it’s because it separates these two, and the film’s best scenes are when they’re simply hanging around in their flats, on trains, in pubs and around the city, laughing, crying, arguing. Similarly compelling is Jonathan Pryce as a deaf saxophonist. He barely says three words throughout the piece, but his is one of the more poignant contribution because we know his trade will soon become all but wiped out by electronica within a few short years. Polanski regular Jon Finch is suitably reptilian as the representative of the recording company, seducing Kate into forgetting her naivety is her strength.
Breaking Glass is a bit of a nexus point of British acting in the early 80s. In tiny roles as a station porter and record producer are Jim Broadbent and Richard Griffiths already fully formed, and one of the pleasures is spotting famous and relatively famous performers. It’s Mark Wing-Davey as a record producer. Ken Campbell as a pub landlord. Michael Kitchen! There are also all kinds of random musical faces including The Damned drummer Rat Scabies and Blitz kids like Philip Sallon, Jeremy Healy, Boy George, Steve Strange and Marilyn. Breaking Glass was one of the most expensive British films of all time, and the money is all in the crowd scenes, hundreds of extras falling over one another, fighting and throwing fire about and that's just in the concert scenes.
The dvd transfer of the film is marvellous, retaining just the right amount of scuzzy graininess whilst highlight the cinematography, all of the faces popping out beautifully when a concert is plunged into darkness thanks to a black out. Special features on the dvd run to a trailer an a lengthy interview with O'Connor who is currently back on tour with the songs from the film. An accompanying booklet, thoroughly researched by pop culture historian and Doctor Who Magazine obituarist Marcus Hearn, fleshes out this story and additionally there are facsimiles of the preliminary fact sheets sent to the press and post cards of various poster images, the photographic one sheet for Britain looking rather reserved in comparison to the cubist noodlings of the Hungarian promo.
For someone who’s entirely outside the moment of the film’s creation, it’s more of a curiosity and historical document than anything else. Nevertheless it’s refreshing to see a rock musical which has the authenticity of contemporary production rather than nostalgically reflecting back ala That Thing You Do! or Backbeat. Not that there aren’t some unsurprising resonances for 2012 Britain. Scenes like the riots in which the “National Front ninnies” (credit to TV Cream) and anti-racist protestors clash are still being played out across our streets, albeit with a few name changes. But the music certainly has changed and as I sit listening to the Breaking Glass soundtrack on Spotify, I’m inevitably going to suggest it’s for the worse. Arse.
Breaking Glass is out now. Review copy supplied.
Posted on Tuesday, December 04, 2012