Conjoined twins Tom and Barry Howe spent a secluded life on L'Estrange Head, an island in a remote area off the northern coast of Britain, before music impresario Zak Bedderwick made a deal with the boys' widower father to make them rock 'n' roll stars. From 1974 to 1975, the Howe twins recorded as the Bang Bang. They earned a live following not just for their gimmick--Tom played guitar and Barry sang, usually with the connection between their chests exposed--but also for their loud and obnoxious proto-punk tunes. They recorded one album, but on the night of their biggest break, their personal lives took a wrong turn, making them little more than a footnote in rock history.
Or so the makers of Brothers of the Head would have you believe. After making Lost in La Mancha, the engaging documentary of a film that never got off the ground, directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have decided to take that idea and put it in a fictional context. Adapted from a Brian Aldiss novel by frequent Terry Gilliam-collaborator Tony Grisoni, Brothers of the Head is a mockumentary about the Howe brothers, rock 'n' roll rebels with an added twist. The fabric of the movie is made up of three elements: contemporary interviews with the people who were there; the copious footage of Eddie Pasqua (Tom Bower), a documentarian who followed the band while they were together; and snippets of footage from a Ken Russell biopic, Two-Way Romeo. The metatext of Brothers of the Head is that neither Pasqua nor Russell's movies were ever completed, and the Bang Bang saga has so far gone unexplored.
There are a lot of clever tricks employed to lend Brothers of the Head an air of reality. The fake documentary footage has a grimy, unpolished look, and long takes with less-than-polished dialogue play as if the events could have really happened. Ken Russell plays himself, discussing what attracted him to the project. The fake footage from his picture features recognizable actors like Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) and Jane Horrocks ("Absolutely Fabulous"). I call Brothers of the Head a mockumentary, but there is nothing mocking about the movie. Fulton and Pepe maintain their poker face. Care is taken to make the details ring true, including excellent reproductions of what the records would have looked like and believably shambolic musical performances. (The songs are all written by Clive Langer, a producer who has worked with acts like Madness, Morrissey, and Elvis Costello. One track is even co-written by Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks.) The result is that you sometimes forget that everything you see never really happened. Pryce and Horrocks are as famous as the cast gets, the rest of the actors aren't that well-known and thus don't carry the baggage of fame, allowing any preconceptions to disappear. (Though, almost perversely, the Brian Aldiss of the film, whose novel still exists in this invented universe and is the book Russell's film was to be based on, is not the real Aldiss, but an actor named James Greene, a detail IMDB has reversed.)
Of course, this illusion can only work because the actors are also very good. Sean Harris, who was so impressive as Joy Division's Ian Curtis in 24-Hour Party People, plays Nick, the somewhat sadistic manger of the Bang Bang, as both a young man in the documentary footage and as an older man in the interviews, providing a very believable thread between the two timelines. All the other roles were cast twice, past and present, but Harris sticking through both is the decoy that makes it seem like everyone is the same.
The movie's true barnstormers are the real-life twins Luke and Harry Treadaway, both making their feature film debut. The actors spend the entirety of Brothers of the Head locked at the chest. They must move in tandem and can never be apart. The make-up effect of the link is impeccably done, and the Treadaways are so immersed in the performance, anyone would be forgiven for turning off the DVD and going to Google to see if the directors had cast real conjoined twins.
The fact that Tom and Barry are given distinct personalities--one sensitive, one with attitude problems--means that Fulton and Pepe can have fun with the standard tropes of rock pictures. There are parties and drugs and girls, creative jealousies, even a love interest (Tania Emery) who falls for Tom and threatens to break the band apart--possibly literally. What the added element of the boys' condition brings is an extra sense of horror. The placement of their link actually has a creepy effect. With the arms on their joined side almost constantly wrapped around each other, the brothers can't avoid intimate-looking poses. Shared whispers hint at their being a level of communication between them that outsiders can't understand, and their lyrics suggest a secret life and maybe even a third presence known only to them.
Brothers of the Head is a unique film that will appeal to many different types of fans. Music geeks will enjoy the pseudo rock history, while horror fans will like some of the movie's eerie turns. In the middle is a strong drama presented with skill and style. While so many mockumentaries take the comedic route, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe saw the genre's capacity to go even farther. Brothers of the Head succeeds in creating its own reality, but without it feeling like a gimmick. It's no Blair Witch marketing ploy, but a smart way to tell a tale that never was but could've been.