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film review

Swan Song follows retired hairdresser and local bar performer icon Pat Pitsenbarger, played by Udo Kier, who sets out on an epic journey across Sandusky to confront the ghosts of his past and collect beauty supplies to style a former client's final hairdo.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

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  • Swan Song
  • Directed by Todd Stephens
  • Written by Todd Stephens
  • Starring Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge
  • Classification PG; 105 minutes
  • Opens Aug. 13 on video on demand

Critic’s pick

Pat Pitsenbarger lives in the past and worries about the changing social mores. “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay any more,” he sighs. To which an old friend snappily replies, “Tell that to your pant suit.” The sassy exchange is typical of Swan Song, a touching dramedy starring the great German character actor Udo Kier as a retired hairdresser and occasional drag performer who’s lost his glitter and just about everything else.

Swan Song is inspired by a real life figure – a “true icon,” according to Todd Stephens, the writer-director who set this story in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. Pat spends his days in a nursing home, lounging in a shabby recliner. His hobby is collecting napkins from the dining room. That he wears sensible shoes tells us how far into malaise this one-time dandy has descended.

It’s quite a film Stephens has made. The quick plot line is that Pat busts out of the nursing home to fix the hair of a deceased socialite for her funeral. So, something from the One More Job files. It’s deeper than that, however. Some might call Swan Song quirky, but better adjectives would be compassionate and commentative. Among his other gay-themed films, Stephens’s autobiographical Edge of Seventeen from 1998 is of the coming of age genre. Let’s call Swan Song coming of aged.

When Pat walks out of the nursing home, he’s leaving his present behind in search of a past that is, to his disappointment, long gone. His old house has been demolished. The ozone-destroying hair product he once used is no longer the industry standard. What happened to the chandelier that once hung glamorously at the drag bar he once frequented? “It got old and they took it down,” he is told. Moreover, the drag bar itself is set to close. “Where will we dance?” Pat wonders.

Some might call director Todd Stephens' Swan Song quirky, but better adjectives would be compassionate and commentative.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

But it’s 2021. The LGBTQ crowd can dance wherever they want now. Sitting on a park bench, Pat marvels at a gay couple with their child. Living in the past, he still can’t bring himself to describe his late partner (David, who died of AIDS) as a lover. He carefully refers to him as a “friend” instead.

Swan Song, then, is a tribute not only to the real-life Pat Pitsenbarger, but to the past generations of people like him who came out when it was unsafe to do so. The veteran actor Kier’s performance as a formerly fancy figure is brilliantly understated.

To his amazement, Pat is remembered by many of the townspeople. How could they forget the Liberace of Sandusky? A middle-aged saleswoman named Sue recalls that Pat once gave her a Dorothy Hamill bob-cut decades earlier. Her husband thought it was too short, yet she “never felt prettier.” Sue doesn’t charge Pat for a dashing mint-green leisure suit. The scene is brief, but it’s one of the film’s depictions of small-town sympathy and small acts of kindness.

Stephens’s script is economical – there’s not an ounce of fat to this film. He directs with a deft touch; Swan Song never gets stuck in sentimentality. Small exchanges are sharp bits of commentary: “I knew my place,” Pat says, about his role as a hairstylist. The soundtrack is campily divine. A late-film cameo from Linda Evans as the dead diva in need of one last makeover is worth the wait.

In the end, Swan Song is about legacy. Not just how we will be remembered by others, but how we will remember ourselves.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)