This week marks 52 years since the 1969 Stonewall uprising in Manhattan.
Coinciding with the anniversary is Pride this June, a commemoration of the riots that happened over half a century ago. The continuation of LGBTQ+ Pride has been the result of hard work, bravery and perseverance. And for those celebrating, you may have already familiarised yourselves with our community’s rich cultural legacy through groundbreaking works like 1990’s Paris Is Burning. But, if you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and watch it immediately.
Music and club spaces have been one of the few realms in which queer folk of all stripes have been able to express themselves, live openly and achieve excellence over the years. Contributing equally to queer history and pop culture at large, our community has a wealth of artistic riches. With that in mind, brush up on your queer musical icons, and celebrate Pride, with these 10 essential LGBTQ+ documentaries.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell2008
The cultural legacies that were stolen and cut short by the AIDS epidemic are losses almost too painful to fully come to terms with. Films like Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell may not make it any easier to do so, but they vitally preserve what legacies we do have left to enshrine. As the documentary so poignantly conveys, Russell was at the heart of every musical scene in 1970s and 80s New York, from punk’s heyday at CBGB to soundtracking the poetry recitations of friend Allen Ginsberg. It illuminates the intangible, genre-hopping genius of his work with the same grace and care that it shows in capturing the private life of a truly singular talent – one whose absence continues to reverberate with each passing year.
I Am Divine2013
The world’s most dangerous drag queen is, of course, predominantly beloved for her star-making, iconic roles in John Waters-directed classics like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. But Divine’s rise above the counter-culture into pop culture was thanks in no small part to her string of delirious Hi-NRG disco hits in the early 1980s. Produced by the omnipresent maestro Bobby Orlando, songs like You Think You’re a Man and Shoot Your Shot pushed the campiness of the genre to the most unsubtle heights imaginable. This era is lovingly documented in the heartwarming I Am Divine, a film that rightfully assesses Divine as both a subversive trailblazer and a misfit who gloriously staked their claim in the spotlight.
Strike a Pose2016
While Madonna’s Vogue was a hit upon its release in 1990, it’s worth evaluating the extent to which it co-opts the ballroom culture that originated from Black and Latino LGBTQ+ communities. During her blockbuster Blond Ambition tour, she shared the stage with the dancers who had inspired her, and featured them in her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare. But for those seeking a course correction, look no further than Strike a Pose: a film that returns to the dancers featured in the earlier documentary and tells the stories of their lives in the years since, squarely placing them at the centre of a narrative that was theirs to begin with.
Hit So Hard2011
An astounding drummer and an out and proud lesbian – which was no small feat when entering the music industry in the 90s – Patty Schemel is what cult heroes are made of. Her journey was not, however, entirely easy. Culled from a treasure trove of footage she recorded while on tour with Hole in support of their seminal 1994 album Live Through This, Hit So Hard functions as both a front row seat to grunge history and a stark warning on the perils of substance abuse. But it is also, importantly, a tale of redemption; a paean to artistic and personal triumph.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye2011
Godparent of industrial music, performance artist, occultist and post-gender theorist; the late Genesis P-Orridge certainly didn’t limit herself to one practice. Though acknowledged as a pioneer and a transgressive provocateur, it was after her death in 2020 that her legacy was examined, amongst Cosey Fanni Tutti’s allegations of physical and emotional abuse, which were published in the autobiography Art Sex Music in 2017.
The two artists considered their bodies to be interchangeable, though Fanni Tutti claimed that her freedoms were oppressed by P-Orridge, who allegedly pressured her into having unprotected sex. P-Orridge denied the claims.
This idea of interchangeability is explored in detail through The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, a documentary on a different relationship in P-Orridge’s life. Together with Lady Jaye, the two embarked on the project Pandrogeny, an attempt to merge into a single being through the use of multiple body modification surgeries; a pandrogyne. A thought-provoking watch, this documentary captures one of the most remarkable experiments of queer theory in pop culture history.
The Nomi Song2004
In the brief time that he spent on Earth, the star power of Klaus Nomi burned so very bright. Born Klaus Sperber, he trained in Germany as a professional opera singer and decided to cast his lot in New York, reinventing himself as Klaus Nomi – an outré alien pop star. Within five years he had risen through the ranks of the city’s art scene, worked with David Bowie, built an astonishing body of work for himself and tragically passed away from AIDS in 1983. It’s a breathless story told with a fan’s loving sense of respect in The Nomi Song – the most comprehensive portrait of the artist we have.
Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution2017
To anyone self-identifying as queer, this film is an absolute essential. Charting the brash, beautiful history of queercore, this documentary offers a time-hopping, macro view of the vibrant intersection of punk, feminist, anarchist and all things homo-cultures. From Peaches detailing the bastions of the electroclash scene to Bruce LaBruce elaborating on their political pornography – or Lynn Breedlove summing up the ethos with: “This is the new feminism. This is how we’re doing it now. If you don’t like it suck my dick” – Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution is an unholy oracle of our culture in all its confrontational glory.
Who the Fuck Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago2017
A name that didn’t get the recognition it deserved: Michael Alago quietly led a landmark career in the music industry. Or as Who the Fuck Is That Guy? shows, perhaps not so quietly. Growing up with a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, the young, gay, Puerto Rican Michael Alago went out with the best New York had to offer, and decided early on he was going to make it in show business. At the tender age of 24, he had become an A&R executive and signed Metallica. Across a career that has seen him work with everyone from Nina Simone to John Lydon and Cyndi Lauper, Alago emerges as one of the great unsung gay trailblazers.
Love Me Like You Should: The Brave and Bold Sylvester2020
Love Me Like You Should: The Brave and Bold Sylvester examines the enormous cultural footprint that the one and only Sylvester left behind. Unwaveringly queer and flouting gender norms at every turn, Sylvester was a titanic force in the gay community. Not to mention talented; with an accomplished ear and a falsetto for the gods, his polished take on disco resulted in the hit You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). Across its brief runtime, the documentary conveys the huge impact he had in representing Black gay excellence, both within and outside of the music industry.
As Sylvester’s close friend and gifted producer, Patrick Cowley holds an equally large amount of reverence to the communities he left behind. A synthesiser wizard and a formative influence on the nascent electronic music revolution, Cowley was among the first wave taken by the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s. The 2020 art film, Patrick, is an esoteric take on the documentary format, pairing 16mm footage of Cowley’s former haunt in San Francisco with his effervescent music – a juxtaposition that mirrors the sudden, yet profoundly felt, absence of the artist himself.