Along with the laughable Times Square, they were considered affronts to our qualified punk cool. We wouldn't be caught dead frequenting a film by Robert Stigwood, rapist of the Beatles legacy with the awful Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And as for Breaking Glass, it seemed to embody everything that was wrong with the media view of our music. It was cliched and contrite, reducing the UK skinhead scene into a ridiculous riff on Nazism and treating the rest of the culture like ill-mannered children taking out their pointless aggression on the Conservative working classes. At the center was Hazel O'Connor, presented in pure cinematic style, her look derived from a dozen betters and her music a montage of Sheffield and shite. In 1980, we couldn't be bothered. Now, 31 years later, Breaking Glass becomes a curio, a sometimes clueless glimpse into what someone thought the youth brigade of a now bygone time and place look and acted like. There is a lot to enjoy here, even for a rehabilitated rude boy. There is also a lot to giggle over and gawk at.
Kate (Hazel O'Conner) and her band Breaking Glass are having a hard time of it in 1980 England. Punk is dying and new wave is being overrun by commercial crap. As a staunch believer in anarchy, individualism, and a true lack of government intrusion and involvement in one's life, her lyrics reflect a growing cynicism and anger. With the help of a record company PR assistant named Danny (Phil Daniels), she starts to get a bit of notice locally. When he hires a new band, including aging addict saxophonist Ken (Jonathan Pryce), commercially keen guitarist and bassist Tony and Dave (Mark Wingett and Gary Tibbs) and antisocial drummer Mick (Peter-Hugo Daly), they finally find some national success. This means record deals and promoter promises, things Kate couldn't be bothered with before. But when a rally against 1984 turns tragic, the singer decides she needs a bigger audience and the band allows a sleazy pop producer named Woods (Jon Finch) to step in and direct their sound. Soon, Danny finds himself on the outside looking in as Kate shoots to the Top of the Pops. Of course, with success comes pitfalls and personal problems - not that the monster music business machine circa the early '80s cares.
This release of Breaking Glass is really the story of two different movies. One is the tale of the sacrifices of success - both personal, professional, and psychological. It offers our strung out, exhausted star delivering a stellar performance of the song "Eighth Day" before a rousing crowd of admirers. As the tune ends, the screen goes dark and we are left with the impression that everything she ever stood for, everything she ever claimed politically or philosophically, has been tossed aside for fame, fortune, cash, comfort, as well as sex, drugs, and rock n roll. It's an unusual ending, just an understandable one. Then there is the way Breaking Glass played out everywhere else except the US. In the 'real' version of the film, our Kate finishes her tune, leaves the venue, hallucinates wildly while in the Tube, and then ends up in an asylum. The last images are of former manager/friend/lover Danny arriving at the 'hospital' to visit, our heroine's favorite instrument - a synthesizer - in his hands. Again, a rational finale, considering all the characters have been through and what we've seen happen. Sadly, the digital package presented by Olive Films only has the first resolution. It's a situation that begs a question, and further consideration.
First, let's get away with the review part right up front. Breaking Glass is a decent curio which ends up being both bi-polar and bittersweet. It challenges a lot of the conventional thinking about music at the end of the '70s/beginning of the '80s in the UK. It straddles the fence of punk and 'new wave' while championing the specific world view of its lead, singer/songwriter Hazel O'Connor. As an amalgamation of every famous girl rocker of the era - she's Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen, Poly Styrene, and Siouxsie Sioux all rolled into one - Kate is an anarchist and a pragmatist, wanting to simply have her otherwise silent voice (and ideas) heard. When she runs into Danny (a terrific turn by UK ace Phil Daniels), she finds a kindred spirit. The rest of the movie is a 'will they or won't they' subtext playing out along the standard music biz rags to riches tale. If the insights into the system's strangleholds are accurate, then any chance that Kate's group has is clearly driven by greed, corruption, cronyism, personal vendettas, and above all, a kind of professional blackmail. These elements strike our interest. All the personal infighting among the 'band' - not so much.
Still, it's fun to pick out familiar faces - Jonathan Pryce as a heroin-addicted saxophone player, Jim Broadbent in a minor moment as a disgruntled railway worker. Even more entertaining is discovering the slightly less known, such as actual bass player Gary Tibbs (Adam and the Ants, Roxy Music). The songs, all written by O'Connor, run the gamut from good ("Big Brother," Writing on the Wall," "Give Me an Inch") to irritating ("Blackman," "Top of the Wheel'). There is a tendency for them to all sound alike, considering their source and creation. Still, they do the job in a movie set inside such a burgeoning world - which then takes us back to the end. If we interpret the US take, it's clear that 'fame at any cost' in the viable career mantra. Who cares if Kate eventually self-destructs. The coffers are full and the fans are happy. But in the UK version, our heroine gets some of her humanity back, albeit via a stay in a mental hospital. Danny's return, while melodramatic, does bring a nice bit of closure to their relationship and the sense is that, if given a chance, Kate could "come back" and reclaim her integrity. It's a nice thought, and a dimensional way of dealing with the narrative. In America, we'd never imagine wanting to give up on notoriety. Sadly, said version is all we have...whether we like it or not.
Breaking Glass doesn't look bad in this Olive Films transfer. It's a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The colors are sharp and the image clear. The old Paramount logo is an interesting dated element, and there are time when the filmmaking gives away the low budget leanings of the production. Still, for a 30 years old item that has few calls for preservation, this presentation is very good.
Alas, the sonic situation here seems stuck somewhere between Dolby Digital Mono and souped up Stereo. The mix emphasizes the abrasive nature of O'Connor's music without balancing out the bottom. The bass is almost non-existent and the songs have no depth or dimension. The dialogue sometimes gets lost in the background, but for the most part, the conversations are easy to understand. Overall, not some amazing remaster, but pretty good nonetheless.
As a dyed in the wool punk, yours truly mocked everything about Breaking Glass. When DJing at the local college radio station, he avoided playing anything off the soundtrack and ridiculed, on air, the student union's decision to air the film as part of their on campus movie series. We were such jerks back then, weren't we?. Today, the movie has its own mysterious allure. It's not perfect, but it does play - warty archetypes and all. For this reason, it earns a Recommended rating. As a matter of fact, if you're not as reverent to the past as...some, the scale goes a bit higher. It's a shame the O'Conner didn't break out to become a bigger star internationally. She continued her music career, not that anyone in America noticed. Breaking Glass may not be great, but it does have a good deal going for it. It's well worth a look.