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Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have been documenting queer history together since the late 1980s, the best known of their joint projects covering the AIDS crisis (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), LGBTQ Screen Portrayal (The celluloid wardrobe) and the persecution of gays by the Nazi regime (Paragraph 175). AS Taylor Mac’s 24 Decades of Popular Music History is a fitting extension of their mission as filmmakers, who venture into concert documentary with an exciting and unique event in which the haute drag performance artist examines at length the sins of America’s past to symbolically reconstruct its present and future.
For anyone who has heard ecstatic accounts of being in the audience of 650 at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse for the one-time marathon performance in 2016, this lovingly assembled record will be a gift for the next best thing. (Aires on HBO and Max beginning June 27 as part of the platform’s Pride Month schedule, along with Rock Hudson: All Heaven Allowedwhich comes out the next day.) For those unfamiliar with Mac’s epic project, strap in for a history lesson like no other.
Taylor Mac’s 24 Decades of Popular Music History
Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Airdates: Tuesday, June 27 (HBO and Max)
With: Taylor Mac, Niegel Smith, Matt Ray, Machine Dazzle, Anastasia Durasova, Erin Hill, Steffanie Christi’an, Heather Christian, Thornetta Davis, Anais Mitchell
1 hour and 46 minutes
Mac describes the show at the outset as “A Radical Faerie Realness Ritual… Sacrifice”, indicating that the event is the ritual and the audience is the sacrifice. The goal is a collective experience where everyone present, regardless of gender identity or sexuality, will approach their queerness and practice joy. The crowd is outfitted in drag attire by Mac’s gleefully dressed Dandy Minions and instructed to attend anything from a slow-motion reenactment of the Civil War to the Trail of Tears, from intergenerational dance classes to a revisionist performance by Gilbert & Sullivan The Mikado set on mars: green is more acceptable than yellow face.
But if that just sounds like serving the field all day, don’t be fooled. From the opening moments, where Epstein and Friedman display their consummate skill at hooking the viewer, it’s clear that beneath Mac’s rousing voice and hilarious banter, there is a profound original thinker at work. It is not for nothing that the performer is a Pulitzer finalist and a grant recipient of the MacArthur Foundation.
In the one detour from the show’s decade-by-decade magical history chronological tour, which runs from 1776 to 2016 to revisit America through the songs of each period, the film opens approximately 19 hours into the performance. It’s 1969 and Mac is clad in a cape of stained-glass effect peace signs, a spectacular headpiece that looks like a CD beehive, and a bra patterned like dazzling diamonds, delivering a ferocious rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
Punctuating the song are thoughts on queer liberation’s defining moment, the Stonewall Riots, a mix of fact and apocrypha, culminating in drag activist Marsha P. Johnson reacting to the June 28 police raid by smashing a mirror, throwing “the short heard around the world.”
Epstein, Friedman and editor-in-chief Brian Johnson then struck us with a dazzling montage of Mac’s costumes, elaborate sartorial patterns introducing another genius, the longtime collaborator known as Machine Dazzle.
We see a swirl of pantomime dress, plumage, sequin and craft project extravagance, artfully incorporating thematic elements: a beer keg and wine cork headdress for a late 19th-century pub song; gay male erotica and flowers for a tribute to Walt Whitman – and inventions from every decade, including hot dogs, potato chip bags, 3D glasses, cassette tapes, toilet paper and dynamite. Machine Dazzle describes the guiding principles behind its stunning sculptural creations as “opulence, beauty, effeminism”.
While Mac and musical director Matt Ray had toured the project over four six-hour performances, the Brooklyn concert was the first and only time it had been seen in its entirety in one sitting, making this generous sampling an invaluable record.
The show began as a response to the AIDS epidemic, honoring how communities arose out of the devastation. The performance begins with a stage packed with musicians and backing singers, with one of them carried aloft in a glorious outing at the end of each hour. That concept is a direct echo of AIDS losses: “You fall in love and then someone leaves,” says Mac.
It is illustrated with touching delicacy as singer Erin Hill, accompanying herself on a harp, performs the traditional folk song “10,000 Miles”, ushering in her departure. Throughout the show, the outings are unexpectedly moving, especially a mandolin player being carried off to represent the more than 600,000 Civil War dead, in a sad rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
By translating songs into different styles and tempos, Mac and Ray aim to dig up a deeper meaning from them, encouraging audiences to hear the lyrics with new clarity. This goes for patriotic ditties (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”), abolitionist songs (“The Ghost of Uncle Tom”), and shanties (“Coal Black Rose”), among many others. Accounts of rape, slavery, racism, genocide, war, homophobia and misogyny are analyzed with biting wit and disturbing insights into the rot beneath the nation’s surface. But the tone is interrogative, reflective, never warning.
One of the more entertaining sections is a battle over the title of Father of the American Song between “sentimental minstrel songwriter” Stephen Foster (hilariously represented by an audience volunteer) and “radical fairy poet” Whitman. No one will care about Mac’s obvious bias, who almost maniacally zips through “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home” and pauses to point out that the offensive racial slur “darkies” has only been changed in the official state song to “people”. in the 80s.
Mac considers the woes of World War I by directing only female-identifying audience members in a chant of “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” while the Dandies bandage the men’s heads and limbs. This is then stridently followed by a shower of balloons and the victory cheer of “Happy Days Are Here Again”, as if erasing the 16.5 million dead of that conflict. “This song is like a person at a party trying to force you to have fun,” Mac comments dryly.
Later, Mac reflects on America’s efforts to keep the suburbs white, even if nothing could stop queer children from being born. This causes the performer to perform Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as he lunges into the expansive auditorium and is pelted with ping pong balls. Follow it up with Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboys,” an anti-gay song reimagined as a romantic ballad for prom. Mac explains: “I read that lyric and thought, we appropriate that shit!” There is something ineffably beautiful about watching an entire audience split into same-sex couples, slow-dance to a hate-sowing Trump supporter song.
Other highlights include a Cold War battle of giant inflatable penises bearing the American and Russian flags as Mac, in punk attire with a towering crest, belts out David Bowie’s “Heroes.” And Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” becomes a heartbreaking evocation of the AIDS death toll.
Epstein and Friedman grace the film with behind-the-scenes glimpses and commentary from Mac, co-director Niegel Smith, Ray, Machine Dazzle, and brilliant makeup artist Anastasia Durasova.
Mac’s personal history ranges from getting into New York theater, performing in raunchy gay clubs (“The Cock, The Slide, and The Hole, in that order”) after being unable to get an audition outside school to acting, to thoughts of his father who died when Mac was 4, remembered through what was apparently his favorite song, “Soliloquy” by Carousel.
That notoriously difficult piece by Rodgers and Hammerstein, tackled 16 hours into the performance, is a powerful consideration of one man’s thoughts on what makes a son ideal, instead transitioning midway to contemplating the arrival of a daughter. The number here goes far beyond drag, giving dramatic expression to the complexity of self-discovery and conflict with parental expectations for many queer children.
As the last of the performers leaves the stage – that honor goes to Ray, with an emotional hug – Mac is left alone with only a ukulele, and for an epic show that scales such unrestrained heights, it only seems fitting that it ends with a haunting slow fade. in the silence. Describing his goal at one point, Mac says, “I want to believe that an artist’s job is to dream culture forward, to look at the things that don’t work in society and think about how they could be better.”
Emerging from this extraordinary stage event a weary but still commanding oracle, Mac shared a vision of America both personal and probing: tender, wounded and yet defiantly, beautifully hopeful. It’s both delirious and embellished with what almost feels like ancient queer wisdom from somewhere down there in the cosmos. Fabulous planet. Epstein and Friedman do a great service by extending his reach to our sick world.