Tom and Barry Howe aren't your typical Rock & Roll frontmen. They're conjoined twins bound at their chests by a piece of flesh.
Co-leaders of '70s-era British Punk/Glam band The Bang Bang, the Howes make for intriguing documentary subjects in Brothers of the Head, a perversely compelling film by directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe — the same filmmaking duo who delivered the equally fascinating Lost in LaMancha, a documentary on director Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to film Don Quixote.
Brothers of the Head traces the Howes' rise from sheltered, musically-inept country kids to debaucherous rockers on the brink of stardom. Not familiar with their story? That's cool. They never existed.
"I think a lot of people go into the film thinking it's going to be like a Spinal Tap, like a Christopher Guest film," says co-director Fulton by phone from Los Angeles. "I like those films a lot, they're funny and they're really clever, but it wasn't what we aimed to do. I think it's a bit tricky when you do a fictive documentary.
It's easy to fall into that particular trap. That's usually what people are doing — they're doing mockumentaries, satires — which is fine, but that was never our intent with this one. We wanted to make it a stranger kind of faux documentary."
Mission accomplished, guys.
From its puzzling opening moments — which include images of actor Jonathan Pryce stumbling amid a desolate British countryside and interviews with author Brian Aldiss (who wrote the obscure 1977 novel on which the film is based) and director Ken Russell (who apparently once tried to adapt Aldiss' book) — Brothers of the Head defies expectation. Remarkably authentic in its rendering of time and place, Fulton and Pepe's creation is a haunting, emotionally claustrophobic tale of two men who can't help but be one.
"In films, the '70s so often are sketched out in broad, almost caricatured strokes," says Pepe, who joins the conversation from another phone within the same Los Angeles home he shares with Fulton. "We wanted to make a film that had the feeling of an authentic '70s Rock & Roll documentary."
After a brief introduction to the Howes' isolated childhood, we learn that their destitute father has sold them to a once successful Rock music manager — dubbed The Impresario (Howard Attfield) — who intends to sell the twins as a freak-show Rock act in an effort to kickstart his ailing career.
In a precursor to the current reality show craze, the manager hires a documentary crew to film the brothers' progress from shy Rock novices to the recording of their debut album in a shambling country estate to their burgeoning status as unlikely, ego-infested pub circuit sensations. Of course, their tale of excess is rife with a longing for acceptance and is populated by a variety of dodgy characters who exploit the twins for their own gain.
Interspersed throughout are modern-day interviews with key players. Think an episode of VH1's Behind the Music directed by David Lynch.
Do Fulton and Pepe see a parallel to their role in the filming of Lost in LaMancha? And what about the current reality TV climate?
"There's an inherent exploitation in any form of documentary," Pepe says. "You are appropriating someone else's life for the purposes of a piece of entertainment, and that was our relationship with Terry (Gilliam). I think good documentary filmmakers have their own kind of ethical barometer where they catch themselves, and that relationship is certainly one that we explore in Brothers of the Head with the documentary filmmaking character, who maybe hasn't necessarily gauged his ethical responsibility quite the same way. He's one of many characters who has an exploitative relationship with the twins."
On the surface, the film's setup seems quite ludicrous, yet it somehow works, delivering a moving, musically astute oddity of gothic proportions.
Brothers of the Head's success hinges on the casting of its two leads, who must be believable during the film's many musical sequences as well as conjure the intimate relationship inherent in conjoined twins. Tom Howe (Harry Treadaway) is the more introspective of the two brothers; his emotions surface only when writing songs or playing guitar for The Bang Bang. Barry (Luke Treadaway) is his caustic counterpoint, spewing forth inappropriate comments/ behavior with reckless, hedonistic abandon.
Credit for the film's eery, penetrating effect goes to newcomers Luke and Harry Treadaway, who inhabit the brothers with unnerving familiarity: They're real-life identical twins.
"We auditioned between like 40 and 50 guys of that age and that had the sort of look that we were after," Pepe says. "The first hurdle that everybody had to get over was they had to do this Punk Rock karaoke because we really wanted actors who could perform their own music and who had the charisma and attitude of Rock & Roll frontmen. Harry and Luke were really a happy accident. We never imagined we would find actual twins to play these roles."
"And I think they were very comfortable with us and they were very comfortable sharing all this very personal stuff," Fulton says. "I mean, you see them behaving in the movie very often the way that they just naturally behave when they're alone together, so they were very open about sharing all that stuff."
But with one caveat: "They usually don't make out with each other," Fulton says with a laugh.
Brothers of the Head is unceasing in its invasiveness. Fetus imagery, strange X-rays and fuzzy shots of intertwined body parts add an extra layer of insularity.
"These characters feel like they're being put under a microscope," Fulton says. "They feel like they're stuck in a bell jar by a documentary filmmaker of loose moral fiber following them wherever they go — into the bathroom, into their bedroom with a flashlight at night. He won't leave them alone. There's all these people who are kind of not very trustworthy who are surrounding them and trying to make them into something that doesn't come naturally the them. I think that is what gives you the creepy feeling, the claustrophobic feeling, and it's definitely what we were after."
Another key element in the film's effectiveness is the authentic way in which The Bang Bang's music is portrayed, both in the delivery of its emotion-laden sound and in its placement amid the '70s musical landscape. The band's sweaty club performances — which were all shot live without playback — emit a visceral charge rare of "real" musical outfits.
"At the moment where they're just about to break out, they're crushed," Fulton says. "It seemed like it heightened the tragedy and seemed musically interesting because it happens to bands all the time. It also seemed fitting for the period of music we were talking about. The Bang Bang was meant to be the missing link between, say, David Bowie and The Sex Pistols, between Glam and Punk."
BROTHERS OF THE HEAD opens Lite Brite at 7 p.m. Friday.