“The internet says I’m 71,” marvels Todd Stephens. “Somebody put on Wikipedia that I’m 71, and I can’t figure out how to change it!” The age mishap seems uniquely fitting, as the director, who is 54, just released Swan Song, which follows an elderly gay hair stylist named Mr. Pat on a strange journey to his hometown of Sandusky, to style the hair of a deceased society matron ahead of her funeral.
That is, perhaps, a gross oversimplification of what amounts to a rich, absorbing character study with a narrative defined by indelible encounters, as Mr. Pat travels miles on foot from a nursing facility to his former hometown, finally making an electrifying appearance at the city’s lone gay bar, a place he once ruled.
Magnificently portrayed with quizzical, restrained flamboyance by German film legend Udo Kier, Mr. Pat is based on a real-life figure from Stephens’ youth.
“Mr. Pat is somebody that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a little kid,” says Stephens. “I would see him around my hometown and he was this beautiful creature — almost like a rare peacock that I would spot when I was riding my bike downtown as a little pre-queer kid.
“Years later, when I got up the nerve to go to our only gay bar in town, I saw Mr. Pat in a fabulous sequin pantsuit — dancing, sparkling, being fabulous on the dance floor. And I knew that I was home, that I had found my people.”
Swan Song, which also stars Jennifer Coolidge (“She’s a genius at improv — you’re trying not to crack up behind the camera”), Michael Urie, and Linda Evans, is the first film Stephens has made since 2008’s Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild and only his fourth feature, though he is forever remembered as the author of the sweet 1998 queer romance Edge of Seventeen. Swan Song, however, is the filmmaker’s finest work yet — original, funny, poignant, and crafted with obvious love and heart.
Stephens acknowledges that the title Swan Song refers to a final performance, but also notes it is a nod to the film’s visual schematic, which gradually shifts from plain and drab to elaborate and colorful.
“The swan doesn’t really make much noise while it’s alive,” he says. “But right before it dies, it sings the most beautiful song it’s ever sung. That informed the movie’s visuals. We had three phases of design in the film: dormant, bud, and blossom.
“As Mr. Pat starts coming back to life, he gets a little bud of a pink hat on top of his head, and then ultimately gets the pistachio green woman’s safari suit. By the end of the movie, he’s fully bloomed.”
Swan Song is available for rent on all major VOD and streaming platforms. Visit www.swansongfilm.com.
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