Before the Days of Answered Prayers


Worried About the Boy

Some people were born to be sold, and George O'Dowd always seemed to have a price on his head -- one of his own making. He was one of the children of the revolution in dark corners, the bastard spawn of Bowie, that distant father-figure of difference who deserted those he had inspired, then returned to their gaudy playground to use them in his next chameleon project, namely his Ashes to Ashes video. The late '70s and early '80s revealed a legacy, and a need to challenge that has all but expired. The New Romantic era was the baroque riposte to punk's safety pins, and Boy George became its ambassador to a startled world.

Boy George was of working class Irish immigrant stock. His self-obsession, and the need and desire to manifest his difference, were notorious before fame came a-calling. The former hat check boy/girl at the Blitz became for the masses the genderless curio whose preference for a cup of tea over sex told the little girls and grannies what they needed to know. The boy reaped just what he wanted, and more. His life burnt to the dust of answered prayers.

He was the biggest pop star of his era; his rise to fall is a parable of the moment, revisited now in Worried About the Boy in these more liberal, and more pasteurized, times. The film of those early days visits the obvious, without being so. It is a confetti of cameos. Marilyn, George's squat-dwelling partner in gender-bending crime (Freddie Fox) appears as a fabulous ambiguity, a beauty that couldn't or wouldn't be denied, whose wisp of the will nature, bestows a sense of intoxicating and elusive enigma.

Mark Gatiss manifests wonderfully the malevolent, demented camp of Malcolm McLaren (part caustic Quentin Crisp, part Victorian dowager), who utilizes George lazily by unsuccessfully installing him in the briefly popular Bow Wow Wow, then disinterestedly dismissing the bauble from his miscreant court.

Steve Strange becomes an imperious zealot, the selector and banisher of the queue glittering and snaking along the street outside his subterranean kingdom; he is part Nero, part Caligula, and an act of sublime egomania captured by Marc Warren. 

The unknown, seventeen-year-old Douglas Booth gives spirit and edge to George, the kid who wants to be a star much to the exasperation of his father, who does a pretty understanding job of not understanding, but caring. Francis Magee brings a wonderfully benign exasperation to the role of a man struggling with his feelings for a son whose nature he fails to comprehend. What emerges is a plethora of incidents that would reach far beyond even George's expectant ambitions. His ability to bed straight boys (first Kirk Brandon, then John Moss), made easier by the ambiguity of his appearance, and to have his heart broken in the process, betrays a contradiction, and vulnerability, that seems certain to end in the disaster that it always does.

Marilyn delivers a killer line of insight when George bemoans his ability to ensnare but never keep these straight boys, by firing back, "it's because you're so physically unattractive to gay men," which hits the heart of the conundrum without really soothing it. Matthew Horne brings a certain intensity to the role of Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, but the part is sadly underwritten. The contradiction of a nice heterosexual Jewish boy having a secret gay affair is never properly explored in the way the relationship with Kirk Brandon more realistically is. Boy George could, however, look after himself physically, if not emotionally, a point proved by his slugging an early object of his disappointment after finding him screwing a girl at the party he'd invited him to.

The film deals primarily with the rise, and doesn't touch on the madness of the success, but features the first fall from grace when, fired from the band, Boy George is holed up in his mansion, a mass of heroin denial, with the press waiting for any glimpse of his broken dream. The way the story ends means there could easily be a series of sequels, since the man the boy became has had several further fandangos with disaster, which suggest that the contradictions that drove him to succeed remain with him in its aftermath. The problem with the piece is that the audience is left with little sympathy to spare for the self-obsession of the central character. It is fascinating to watch, but not to empathize with.  

Now, when success is hot-housed on American Idol, Britain's Got Talent, and X Factor, where being Michael Buble is something to aspire to, the sheer driven nature of the spirits of Boy George, Steve Strange, and Marilyn holds a sense of fervor, an integrity to shine through, by riding against the grain, a facet sadly absent in these more informed times. The spectral nature of their present lives as fading tidemarks of their decade is almost Proustian in its sadness. We now do not wait to be shocked. It is hard to imagine what would provoke the internet age to horror and confusion of the kind that Boy George's first Top of the Pops appearance generated, and that was only over "is it a boy or a girl"?  

Worried About the Boy covers the same territory of the musical Taboo, George O' Dowd's own take on his youthful excesses. Tony Basgallop's script is powerful and affectionate, and has an energy and verve that covers its minor flaws. A trip down memory lane for those who were fans of the boy in his unusual finery, and also an education for those who only know of George from his recent media indiscretions and subsequent incarceration. It reminds one of a fading Polaroid sent to the digital era, and won't turn George O'Dowd into the Quentin Crisp of his time. Crisp was emerging from the shadows, and subsequently arrived without the trappings of stardom. This portrayal gives O'Dowd a youthful humanity that his older, more brazen self has seemingly lost, and is a timely reminder that although we are all more worldly wise, it not so long ago was not so, and therein lies an advance and a loss we all should ponder.