An elderly man comes out of retirement for one last job in Todd Stephens’ Swan Song, a moving, melancholic rumination on memories and past ghosts. Udo Kier stars – and sparkles – as Pat Pitsenbarger, a former hairdresser now confined to a nursing home following a stroke. Similar to 2017’s Lucky, which featured Harry Dean Stanton as a lonely man gone cynical late in life, Swan Song shines a light through this sea of sadness, never claiming it’ll disappear but finding cause for celebration in life, both past and present.
The setting is Sandusky, Ohio, a small-town caught in the flux of modernisation and change. Spending his days sneaking cigars in his room and caring for a paralysed friend through the kindness of hairdressing, Pat’s quiet and monotonous life changes with a former client’s dying wish: for him to style her final hairdo as she is laid to rest. As he breaks out of the nursing home with just a few keepsakes and dressed in his drab all-grey tracksuit, Swan Song finds lift off in Pat’s newfound freedom, with its comical vision of American suburbia and the colourful characters he meets along the way.
There are a fair number of characters – both living and dead – in Swan Song, which causes some to feel underdeveloped, but the star here is Kier. He is full of sorrow, deeply missing his late partner David and other friends, but Kier frequently injects Pat with a wily edge, through a sparkle in his eye, a flaunting pose for onlookers, or a wry smile and cheeky comment. Kier didn’t need to cement his legendary status any further, but Swan Song is simply further proof of his acting range, as he moves from graveside cries of emotion to sarcastic moments of humour seamlessly. A clothes-based subplot of Pat shedding his tracksuit – almost as if it was a constricting, false layer of skin – and donning a purple fedora, green suit and rings on each finger is delightful, marking the lead out as something regal and iconic.
Indeed, Stephens – here as the director and writer – truly does create a great onscreen gay icon in Pat. Swan Song morphs from a tale of old age and regret into something far more inspirational, as we discover Pat’s trailblazing qualities and actions which he injected into Sandusky in his younger years, mainly through his legendary drag performances. Based on the real-life Pat Pitsenbarger, who lived and performed in Sandusky, Swan Song is a dedication to those who built the gay community, paving the way for more freedom today. The melancholic edge of Swan Song never leaves, but it is, eventually, outshone by the power of liberation and its glorious message to live (and dance) again.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Todd Stephens
STARS: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie
RUNTIME: 105 minutes