Review by Sean Boelman
Todd Stephens’s gay dramedy Swan Song is probably the most unabashedly gay movie you will ever see outside of a dedicated queer film festival, and that’s a compliment. Sweet and funny, Stephens’s movie definitely has some structural and pacing issues but benefits from great character work and a glorious turn from the legendary Udo Kier.
The film follows a gay hairdresser who, once flamboyant and charismatic but now curmudgeonly, picks back up his scissors to style the hair of one of his dead former clients. It’s not a particularly complex story, feeling like a road movie without much of a focus on the travelogue aspects, but it’s charming nevertheless.
Admittedly, the movie isn’t particularly subtle with what it has to say. The film’s messages about forgiveness and righting one’s wrongs as a final act are certainly moving, but the movie doesn’t go much beyond the surface. However, the film is at its most effective when it is exploring the impact that even the most seemingly insignificant of people can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
Without a doubt, the best part of the movie is the way in which Stephens writes his protagonist. At first, it seems as if the character is going to be rather one-note: a grumpy old man who has to open his heart again. However, as the character becomes more reflective, more layers are revealed and he turns into something much more complex and approachable.
Kier is largely known for intimidating supporting roles, especially in genre pictures, but this chance in the spotlight shows that he is plenty versatile in addition to his talents as a character actor. He’s hilarious, nailing the comedic timing with ease, but he’s also charming and endearing, making the emotional core of the film work quite well.
If the movie does struggle with one thing, it is finding a focus. The main story of the film is about the protagonist’s relationship with his dead client, but there is a subplot exploring his past life as a drag queen. It’s probably the most interesting and unique aspect of the script, but it’s not fully developed in a way that leaves something to be desired.
The aesthetic of the movie is a little rough around the edges, which is a tad disappointing given that the film is quite literally about style and fashion, but it’s never too distracting. That said, there are some inspired selections on the soundtrack that give it a very jovial tone and make the movie a lot more fun to watch.
Swan Song is far from perfect, but there’s no denying the charm of getting to see Udo Kier in a road movie about a gay hairdresser. It’s an uplifting and adorable movie that audiences should be clamoring to see.
Swan Song is screening as a part of the online edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 16-20, 2021.