Brothers of the Head
Brothers of the Head tells the story of conjoined twins who are turned into rock stars by a music promoter just because of the gimmick they represent. Zak Bedderwick says, “I never exploited anyone who didn’t want to be exploited.” Perhaps. Tom and Barry Howe didn’t ask to be exploited, but the surely didn’t resist, nor did they resist the impulse to exploit those around them as they quickly gained fame as punk rockers.
The story is told as a documentary. The fact that this is a fictitious documentary about a rock band may lead some to think of This is Spinal Tap, the comic Rob Reiner mockumentary. But Brothers of the Head is not Spinal Tap. It is a dark and disturbing film that shows us a bit of the darkness that is a part of all of us.
Tom and Barry were raised on an isolated island by their father. When they were 18, Zak showed up and bought them from their father to make them the front of a rock band – The Bang Bang. Tom is taught to play a few chords on guitar; Barry became the singer. We see all this through old footage shot by a young filmmaker who lived with the twins and the others collected to make this band. We hear from all of those involved, except Tom and Barry. We learn about them only through the eyes of the others. While Tom and Barry are the center of the story, they do not take part in the telling of the story.
Conjoined twins are perhaps the closest two people can be – identical twins with the additional bond of being physically connected to each other. Although they are in some ways a unit, they are also two distinct people. We see both the connection and the separateness in Tom and Barry. Tom wants to please people and learn to be a good musician. Barry is more rebellious. At one point we hear the two brothers fight violently (how could two people always together not have fights). We also see them washing each other in the bath and sleeping together. They have an intimacy that is beyond what others can imagine, but intimacy is a two-edged sword.
There is a certain Edenic nature to the story. These two had a certain amount of innocence because they have been kept from the prying eyes of the world as they grew up. Suddenly, they are whisked away from that isolation and suddenly live under the constant eye of the camera. Everyone involved brings their own bit of temptation. It isn’t so much that there is a snake in the garden; it’s more like they were placed in a den of snakes. The twins quickly begin to spiral into the kind of lifestyle that has burnt out many whose lives are suddenly filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We can tell that tragedy is on its way.
For Tom and Barry, the forming of the band gave them a chance to find themselves and their voice – and it was often an angry voice, which finds a perfect outlet in their punk rock. At the same time that they were finding themselves, they were also in a very real sense losing themselves in the maelstrom of the world of fame.
I’ll admit that I was apprehensive about seeing this film. I was never a fan of punk and the kinds of not-quite-surreal images that I’d heard were in the film don’t always appeal to me. But it is a film that has kept coming to mind in the days following the screening. The images are often haunting. The social dynamics of the band and its entourage strike the right chords of reality. Even the music, written by Clive Langer, is engaging and very much a part of the story.
It kept coming back to me for more than just the images or the music. It came back because the sense of despair that it evokes – the kind of despair that great tragedies awaken. Despair may not be a pleasant emotion, but it is a reality in every life from time to time – and in some lives much of the time. Hamlet and Oedipus surely teach us about the despair of tragedy. Even the author of Ecclesiastes touches on it from time to time. While Brothers of the Head is not in the same league as Hamlet or Ecclesiastes, it effectively takes us down the dark spirals of life and allows us to begin to plumb the depths of lives that become empty even when they seem to overflow.