Perhaps it was necessary from a verité point of view, but the early appearance of Ken Russell as a talking head in mock rock documentary Brothers of the head nearly killed my interest in it. Ken may have had his time in the sun as a provocateur, but directing the Who’s Tommy does not make him a viable witness to be called upon when discussions turn to mid-seventies music. It gives one the immediate and very possibly unfair suspicion that the film – directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe and adapted by Tony Grisoni from the Brian Aldiss novel – may well have been made by old farts attempting to relive their youth. Not an attitude we tolerate round these parts, obviously.
But after this early hiccup the film hits its stride, and the eponymous brothers engage you with their interconnected personalities, at first wary then going with the flow as they travel from rural hermits to punk pioneers. If Syd Barrett and Richey Edwards were averaged out and doubled, with minor differences then applied, you might get close to Tom and Barry Howe. Accents aside – more Forest of Dean than coastal Norfolk – the Treadaway brothers do a fantastic job of playing conjoined twins, alternating between oneness and writhing against each other in supreme irritation at not being able to break free of this indissoluble bond. Tom is quiet and noble, while Barry teases and taunts those who come within their orbit, homing in on their motives. The contrast with the group’s appointed manager, whose acting as a hard bastard with repressed homosexual tendencies is an archetypal dog’s dinner, is stark.
Predominantly written by Madness producer Clive Langer, but working with Pete Shelley for the key song ‘Doola and Dawla’ (though Pete’s involvement seems to consist of cheekily pinching the guitar hook from his old mate Howard Devoto’s ‘Shot by both sides’ [NB see comment]), the music, like the boys, exists in a bubble, with few reference points given beyond early Kinks as an exemplar for how brother Barry should play guitar, and Tommy. They produce prototype punk with tinges of Hawkwind, noticeably different from the pub rock one initially thinks that they would more likely be playing in 1975. According to this documentary, the Bang Bang anticipate punk by at least a year. Unless they are aware of the Hammersmith Gorillas, this is a note which may jar with anyone who has at least a rough sense of what happened when, particularly since the film switches between fantasy freak show and grimy reality.
The plot is a woman, Laura, who falls in love with Tom. She may or may not have been responsible for an attempt to explore the possibilities of surgically dividing the twins. The ending seems arbitrarily sudden after the careful cultivation of this plotline and of the Bang Bang’s bubble milieu but Brothers of the Head is a bold effort and for the most part a world away from previous entries in the annals of often dubious films about rock music. It’s roughly equidistant from Brothers to This is Spinal Tap and Velvet goldmine, the more recent memory of and surface similarities with the latter film possibly being the reason why Fulton and Pepe were persuaded to make a mock documentary out of this freakish material rather than a straight piece of fiction. With that greater ambition, they might well have produced a film that was considerably more artful. As it is, Brothers of the head is refreshingly odd.