Film Review – Breaking Glass
When I was a small-town punk rocker back in the early ’80’, I spent most of my time getting harassed by some dude in a cowboy hat or listening to music. (Which is probably true for most teens, minus the redneck bullying.) One of the ways a kid in my situation found new music was by watching Night Flight Friday and Saturday nights on the USA network. I can’t really say that Night Flight was the most awesome thing that has ever been on television, but at the time it certainly felt like it. The show brought together punk and new wave videos, cult movies, a redubbed Japanese action series (Dynaman), and the Church of the Sub-Genius. One of the movies they occasionally played was Breaking Glass (1980), and I tried desperately to see this movie. I would stay up late to watch it, or I would record it on VHS to watch later, but somehow my dad would thwart me every time. I honestly don’t think he did it on purpose, but he would record over my tape, or decide he wanted to watch football, or arbitrarily enforce a bedtime for me. It was frustrating as hell, and I never got to see the movie. I had forgotten about it until it popped up recently as a Netflix recommendation. I finally had a chance to watch it without worrying that someone else would want to watch a disease-of-the-week movie instead.
Breaking Glass is the story of Kate (Hazel O’Connor), an English punk-inspired singer/songwriter who is happy to play her anti-fascist songs wherever she can. The description IMDb gives for this movie is: “A rock singer is determined to rise to the top of the profession, letting nothing stand in the way of that goal.” Nope. Kate does not believe in record contracts. The movie was released in 1980, and her England has a dismally high unemployment rate, an ever-increasing police presence, and non-stop disco music. Skinheads and other fascist groups are on the rise, and while she may not be able to change it, she sure can sing about it. The approach of the year 1984 is directly referred to in this movie, and the communal fear of a future controlled by Big Bother appears somewhat valid.
Kate meets Danny (Phil Daniels), a small-time promoter who dreams of making it big as a manager. He currently earns a living as a sort of sub-contractor for Overlord Records, buying up crap disco records at key stores to boost the chart ratings. He convinces Kate to upgrade her band, with him as manager, and she ends up with a more professional group that includes Jonathan Pryce as a partially deaf, heroin-addicted sax player. One funny moment shows the audition of the bass and guitar players, one of whom has “great ideas,” and “would love to help her with her lyrics.” At this point in the movie, she just laughs it off, because she can’t imagine letting anyone interfere with her vision. It’s her band. The newly formed band, Breaking Glass, gets more gigs, attracts the attention of an established promoter, and eventually gets signed by Overlord Records.
As you can guess, things start going downhill after this. The record company wants her to remove the word “ass” so that her song “Big Brother” can get radio airplay. They also give her a fancy pants producer (Jon Finch) to commercialize her sound. Everything is geared to make her a big hit. An important scene in the movie is when Kate incites a riot between anti-1984 activists and skinheads, resulting in the death of a young man. She is taken aback by what she has done, making herself vulnerable to the machinations of the record company. Danny is also repulsed by the event, but has a different reaction. He begins to realize the fame that he wanted for himself and Kate isn’t what he thought it would be. As Kate gets sucked further and further into the system, he rebels and eventually quits. After that, things just sort of spiral downward.
This movie is written and directed by Brian Gibson, who also directed What’s Love Got to Do with It and The Juror, and it succeeds on a lot of levels. The story—fame will mess you up—is not particularly original, but transplanting it to the punk rock world of the early ’80s makes it more interesting than maybe it deserves. There are two things the movie does really well: it presents a fairly realistic picture of punk life at that time and place, and the music is really good. For some reason, most fictional movies have a really hard time getting an authentic punk feeling, whether it be ’70s British punk or the ’80s American version. This film gets a lot of the details right, although—and I have this complaint about a lot of movies—Kate’s apartment is huge. It looks like someone who lives a completely different life lives there.
Another huge asset for this movie is the music. Gibson did himself a big favor by casting Hazel O’Connor, who not only plays Kate, but wrote and performed the music in this film. I had forgotten when sitting down to watch this movie that I had bought the soundtrack as a teenager and knew every lyric for every song by heart. One of my main complaints with almost any movie that has any kind of live music is that the music sucks. Movies with enormous budgets can afford the rights to all kinds of things. Small movies cannot, and it often shows. This soundtrack is great, and somewhat ironically, considering the message of the movie, was very successful in the U.K. The only downside for me is the ever-present saxophone, but I can hardly fault the movie for that. Every band in the ’80s had one. I’d like to say that punk rock bands smartly gave it up, but that would be a lie. (I don’t hate the saxophone in general, but its overuse in the ’80s turned me against it except for jazz. Where it is awesome.)
Gibson’s portrayal of Kate is also really interesting. Even when women are the stars of a film, they are often the object, not the subject. (The subject acts; the object is acted upon.) And even when they are the source of action, they are still objects that are defined by their appearance. This movie is explicitly about Kate’s journey from active subject to passive object. While Danny desires Kate—they end up dating—she is not shown as an object of desire to the audience. She is presented as a person: she creates, there is not much fuss about her clothes or appearance, and she voices what she is thinking. As she gets further subsumed into the system, she becomes more and more passive. Even as Kate eventually becomes objectified, I never feel that Hazel O’Connor is. The camera does not “make love” to her; it reflects the image of her character.
The movie does have a lot of flaws. Some of the 1984 references are a little heavy: Overlord Records, anyone? And the transition from Kate the rebel to Kate the studio property who needs a shot in the ass of some mystery drug to get onto stage is a little rushed. Yes, the riot traumatized her, but film isn’t quite clear on how that trauma made it easier for her to give in to the studio’s requests. This uneven transition really takes away from what had been a pretty logical progression. The third act is weaker than the rest of the film because it is unclear what is motivating a lot of people’s behavior. And yes, as I’ve said before, the story is a somewhat old one with new trappings. But it was worth the 27-year wait.
Final Grade: B+