PRIVILEGE (NEW YORKER)
British director Peter Watkins creates a multi-faceted critique of celebrity, corporate culture, government and religion in his criminally underappreciated 1967 film, Privilege. Set in a dystopian near future, the film follows a Pop star named Steven Shorter (Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones) whose fame has reached an incredible worldwide critical mass. Simply, he is “the biggest celebrity in the world.”
But fame comes at a price. Stripped of all freedoms, he is the pawn of handlers, managers, business bigwigs, powers-that-be and the clergy, all of whom use the tortured artist’s influence for their own means, both financially and to secure totalitarian and theocratic holds on an unstable populace. Shorter is an empty, passive puppet until he meets an artist (supermodel Jean Shrimpton) who slowly breaks him from his shell … with cataclysmic results.
Produced after Watkins’ frightening faux doc about a nuclear blast on Britain, 1965’s The War Game, Privilege employs the documentary form as well but also traditional narrative breaks, dark humor and satire, melodramatic musical numbers, nods to cinema classics like Triumph of the Will and more. The mix still rings fresh, a plus that overrides Jones and Shrimpton’s uneven performances and the lack of adequate back-story for Shorter. Both lauded and ridiculed upon release, Privilege disappeared in the subsequent years.
Thankfully, New Yorker gives the classic its due, with bonuses that allow for a better understanding of the work and its history, including Lonely Boy, the 1962 backstage short about Paul Anka that influenced Privilege, and an insert booklet featuring a revealing Watkins “self-interview.” Grade: A