Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
Let us pause to consider the story of Joey Arias, a living legend of New York City's downtown art scene. He came to the city as a young man at just the right time, when punk rock and fluid sexuality and performance art and counterculture ethos were crashing together in the late 1970s and early 1980s, creating an explosion of performers, musicians, writers, artists, and filmmakers with no boundaries and no rules. He started to get attention for his outrageous style as an employee at the Fiocucci clothing store, where the staff would model and perform; he then moved onto the stage (or whatever would work as a stage) as a singer/actor/performer/whatever. "Joey sort of symbolizes that whole era," says another survivor of the time, in the new documentary Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy. "He keeps that alive and kicking."
But it's not just his story; we are also introduced to Basil Twist (there's your title), a brilliant and innovative puppeteer. When he was a kid in the 1970s, he wasn't even aware of Joey's scene; a third-generation puppeteer, he was busy being inspired by Jim Henson. But when he came to New York and began to make a name for himself as a unique theatrical presence, his path eventually crossed with Joey's, and they eventually collaborated on the acclaimed, inventive stage show "Arias with a Twist."
Bobby Sheehan's doc isn't merely a history of that production; indeed, that's just one of the film's many threads. It is also an obituary for Klaus Nomi, the alternative icon who became Arias' mentor. And it is an elegy for Nomi and other figures who were early casualties of AIDS, as well as a peek at the toll it took on that scene. And it is a chronicle of Arias' transformation into an icon, performing around the world and even emceeing Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas show "Zumanity".
Sheehan's scope is admirable; it is also the film's weakness. The impressions of the New York punk-art scene are fascinating, spruced up with intelligent (and frequently funny) commentary from the likes of Michael Musto and Ann Magnuson, while the archival footage--ugly old videotapes of low-budget films, performances, and home movies--is priceless. The scene was also well-remembered in last year's Tribeca docs Blank City and Con Artist; all three films recall that specific time with verve, and (as with the earlier pictures), one gets the impression that the documentary remembrance is probably more watchable than the work itself.
The trouble is that the opening sections, in detailing Arias' biography and place within that scene, are so vivid and interesting that when it switches to Twist's bio, our interest flags. His story, while sweet and somewhat inspiring, isn't nearly as interesting as Arais'--we keep waiting for the piece to get back around to him. Later detours produce some of the same effect; "Let's get back to Joey," an interviewee announces at one point, and we're with him. The stories Sheehan tells are good ones, and his subjects are engaging and worth celebrating. Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy is an interesting and entertaining picture, if a bit too all over the place; though a good time, it lacks the sharp focus and discipline of a truly great documentary feature.