From the eye-opening images of punk Kate riding the Cockfoster’s train, simultaneously singing “Writing on the Wall” whilst spraying graffiti throughout the rumbling compartment, one becomes increasingly cognizant that this 1980 British saga (now on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment) is not A) a Merchant-Ivory production nor B) did it originate from a Jane Austen source work.
BREAKING GLASSis one of the most accurate filmic depictions of the then-thriving albeit short-lived punk/New Wave scene that enveloped the galaxy between the late 1970s-early 1980s. It was a strange colorful anything-for-a-dare era that encouraged bizarre dress, vulgar language and the celebration of public bodily functions whenever possible; it was a cultural period where Oliver Reed became a religion.
Imaginatively re-working the MGM-cliched showbiz chestnut of young hopefuls striving for success in the music universe, BREAKING GLASS (the name of the protagonist’s radical band) takes no prisoners in its unfolding of great near non-stop dirges that ultimately becomes a visual evocation of the wheeze “Don’t wish so hard for something lest you just might get it.” And get it they do. Kate, as ably impersonated by nasty skyrocketing sensation Hazel O’Connor (England’s more severe alternative to Blondie’s Debbie Harry) fills the Panavision frame for nearly the entire 94 minute running time. She teams up with aggressive producer wannabe Phil Daniels and the pair scours the bowels of the earth (well, Great Britain) to assemble the kick-ass punk ensemble of all time. Their adventures and success encompass a kind of latrine Wizard of Oz journey oozing with crimes of fashion, drugs, human oddities, mucho R&R but (surprisingly) little sex.
Daniels first caught global attention via his similar appearance in The Who’s Quadrophenia – a 1978 pic I absolutely loved (at the time). O’Connor was more mind-boggling – she exploded like a pissed-off shaken beer can and, as this movie demonstrates, had a quite an effect on – to paraphrase Trollope (the author, not O’Connor) – the way we lived back in the day. With her shell-shocked frizzed coif – the follicle equivalent of a giant mobile toilet brush – O’Connor appropriately swept the London music scene with an inimitable style that set many a trend for years to come. Her raccoon-blackened eyes over a goth white face beat the Blade Runner look by more than two years (her neon-glowing outer membranes did likewise to Tron). She also, as we can clearly see (at least more clearly than the frequently stoned cast), invented the dance phenomenon known as The Robot. O’Connor’s music is pretty swell too; believe me, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing the Coventry-born Caucasian warbling “I’m a Blackman” or spewing out the quintessential anarchic ballad, “Who Needs It? (I Need It Like a Hole in the Head).” Of course, when it comes to rock ‘n rollers, no one tops the Brits for laughs – save possibly the Japanese. Daniels’s and O’Connor’s band audition beautifully underlines this statement; in a hovel that The Young Ones would have condemned, the Breaking Glass creators present a montage of lousy and fantastic talent. Indeed, to prove that this is no mere rotten exploitation AIP/Sam Katzman/Crown-International one-off, the supporting cast is of pedigree stock – from band members Gary Tibbs (bass player for Adam and the Ants) to “mental” Peter Hugo-Daly and finally, best of all, Jonathan Pryce – hysterical as a deaf saxophonist. Along the way there are choice bits by Richard Griffiths, Jim Broadbent, Michael Kitchen, Mark Wingett and Janine Duvitski. The lion’s share of thesp praise, however, must be reserved for Jon Finch as the slimy leather pants-adorned Faustian magnate who signs BG to a personal contract – and then destroys them (making a fortune in the process). A schism about the route these proceedings take caused a rift between a buddy and me. I thought the “sold out” Kate (and I mean this in every definition of the term), incoherently singing watered-down lyrics for the masses, was perfect. My pal reckoned it needed closure. As far as I was concerned, watching the swacked-out druggie flying without a net amidst her new more-bland-than-a-band backup musicians WAS closure. Granted, this is cynical, sarcastic, evil twirl-your-‘stash-and-wring-those-hands-with-glee closure – but a successful conclusion all the same. Let me just say that everyone from O’Connor to Daniels to Pryce to Finch does get what they want – whether monetary, fame or via that dirty J.J. Hunsecker word “integrity.” My personal problem was that O’Connor’s compromised compositions didn’t seem all that bad to me – in fact they very closely ape the Eighties contemporary sound of Kate Bush, who, back then, I kinda liked. Proof again, dagnabbit, that I was just never cool enough! I gotta tell you though that the look and feel of BREAKING GLASS does regurgitate many memories. I vividly recall leaving the salt mines at six – meeting friends, hitting the clubs on the Bowery till two or three, getting home at four – and then up at seven and back to work. Jeez, I’m exhausted simply recalling those weekly sojourns – let alone writing the schedule down for the benefit of readers requiring additional evidence of what an idiot I used to be. Those cramped ratty caverns that sweltered even in the dead of winter (minus the ones that blasted the air conditioners to pneumonia-inducing “Arctic Blast” mode even in March) – provide yet another “Nam” flashback; be grateful that home vid smell-o-vision hasn’t yet arrived, because the stench was something else (the always-plentiful puddles of vomit offered a breath of mint respite!)!
Director Brian Gibson, who also wrote the script, would himself eventually sell out (What’s Love Got to Do With It?). This is his cinematic epoch – and for those who relish the 1980s like me (even at this embryonic stage of the decade), BREAKING GLASS is not to be missed. The dingy offices and rooms awash with Buzzcocks and B-52 posters, the sleek boring antiseptic record company headquarters…It’s all there. But the whole she-bang always swerves back to Hazel O’Connor. Belting out angry ditties with a chalked face smeared with a swath of crimson over her giant red lips, she is a sight to behold – just imagine The Joker on America’s Got Talent (or its UK counterpart). O’Connor’s popularity at the time of this movie’s release was astounding to say the least; her diverse fan base included such celebrity denizens as Trevor Howard, and her “look” inspired enough androgynous imitators/groupies to terrify David Bowie.
With the exception of a slight flutter over the dark scenes, the BREAKING GLASS DVD is exceptional. Sharp with ebullient hard candy-hues and tones, it’s like a gross of “ripped” album covers come to life. The audio, not sufficiently hyped by Olive, must be mentioned. It’s an early and excellent example of Dolby Stereo – with the music not only admirably replicated, but some nifty surround of city noises and authentic background “real life” effects thrown in to boot.
In closing, BREAKING GLASS so impressed another friend of mine that she became mildly obsessed with its star. “What ever became of Hazel O’Connor?” she innocently asked. Without hesitation, I snarkily answered, “She married Rupert Murdoch.” Not expecting her near fatal response of “Holy CRAP!” I decided to let the matter go. And then I popped in a Kate Bush CD.
BREAKING GLASS: Color; Letterboxed [2.35:1]; dual layer.
Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. OF308. SRP: $24.95.
ALSO AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: OF309. SRP: $29.95.