Swan Song came out of nowhere, and completely bowled me over with its vibrance, authenticity, and tender love of gay culture. Udo Kier is a legend of independent cinema, and Swan Song lets him spread his wings like he never has before. Kier embodies real-life, Sandusky trailblazer, Mister Pat Pitsenbarger, with every fiber of his being. Kier doesn’t play Pat as a stereotype, but as a flawed, complicated, tenacious individual. Pat is a real charmer; nearly everyone he meets is profoundly affected by his presence, and it’s a performance that aches with emotion. The SXSW film follows Pat through an array of zany situations. These destinations embolden his character, and serve as an explosive showcase for Kier’s indomitable talent.
Retired hair stylist Pat Pitsenbarger (Kier) is living out his remaining days at a nursing home, when he receives an unexpected guest. An old client who had a falling-out with Pat has passed away, and she wants him to style her funeral hair. In Pat’s words: “In death, Rita realized she had taste.” Rita’s death forces Pat to reexamine his past, most of which he keeps locked away in a trunk under the bed. Eventually, he decides to leave on foot, leading Pat on a personal journey of self-rediscovery.
The direction here is impressive, with subtle hints to Todd Stephens’ 1998 classic, Edge of Seventeen. Needle drops of iconic tunes, like “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Dancing On My Own”, are sharply effective at evoking mood. Stephens paints a very bold picture of Pat’s past, with minimal, but effective, use of flashback. As the scope of the movie gradually expands, so too does the level of gayness. The dull grays morph into bright bursts of color, as the film builds block after block to Pat’s character and past. Swan Song culminates in a tender, pared-down, and extended sequence that reaches deep into the emotional core and leaves you thinking about the beauty of its message.
To say that Udo Kier is a revelation this far in his career is simply blasphemy, yet this is the role he was born to play. Every frame with Pat sizzles with a power only Kier could embody. Sequences where Pat ends up at the closing night of a gay bar from his past, and another where he visits the grave of his lover are realistic and raw. He’s constantly impressed by how drastically the world has changed since his stay at the nursing home. Pat’s wardrobe gets an upgrade during his travels, and each time feels unique and special. The final scene is touching and brought me to tears. Kier is the main focus, with Jennifer Coolidge (Dee Dee) and Michael Urie (Dustin) sharing the spotlight in a couple scenes. The dynamic between Coolidge and Kier, established only briefly, crackles. It helps in establishing Pat’s complicated history with Dee Dee, as the ripple effects are felt through the rest of the runtime.
Swan Song is exactly the kind of movie I needed right now. Referred to in the film as the Liberace of Sandusky, Pat Pitsenbarger is instantly iconic and will go down as one of the greatest performances of Udo Kier’s rich filmography. This is an LGBT story uniquely singular in both vision and scope, with the gentle touch of a director fluent in telling gay stories. As a major passion project for director Todd Stephens, I can safely say the real-life Pat would be giving Swan Song a standing ovation. Ahead of its SXSW Film Festival debut, Magnolia Pictures has acquired Swan Song for distribution.
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