Jubilee was a critical and commercial failure. Wells Dunbar explains why that's a dirty, rotten shame.
Reviewed by Wells Dunbar, Fri., Aug. 22, 2003
The Criterion Collection, $39.95
"America is dead! It's never been alive anyway!" So says Mad Medusa, the murderous heart of a post-apocalyptic girl gang in Jubilee, Derek Jarman's gorgeous mess from 1977, re-released and remastered. Jarman, best known for his jittery video work with the Smiths, foreshadows Morrissey's androgynous affiliations and disdain of the workaday UK. Birthed under the shadow of Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, the titular film soars backward on gilded wings to the literal Elizabethan era, where our queen, aided by mystic John Dee, prays for a vision of her country's future. When angel Ariel appears to grant this wish, Liz isn't privy to a golden age, or even the trash-riddled, economically stricken punkubator of 1977 London. Worse, she is transported into an antiquated future of burning baby buggies, solitary media control, and a sea of storms. Although Jenny Runacre's Elizabeth largely abates at this point, the actress continues as Bod, the very shadow of Elizabeth herself. De facto den mother, Bod abates and agitates aforementioned pyromaniac Mad, schoolmarm/punkette Amyl Nitrite, insatiable Crabs, brotherly lovers Angel and Sphinx, and Chaos (their au pair). With law and order abolished, cops and punks clash as violently as Amyl and Mad; whereas Amyl prefers reimagining history, Mad simply wishes to destroy it. Complicating matters further is orgasm-addict Crabs; her encounter with Kid (a fresh-faced Adam Ant) consolidates the gang's relationship with Borgia Ginz (played with aplomb by Jack Birkett, née the "Incredible Orlando"), the maniacal baron of all music and media. Suffice to say, Borgia gives them their big break, yet this Faustian pact is rendered all the more disturbing after all they (and we) have seen. As illuminated by the accompanying documentary, helmed by actor Spencer Leigh and crammed with clips from Jarman's short films, Jubilee was a critical and commercial failure. Taboo and perverse imagery (like Jesus' disco orgy of the damned) ensured that conservative London wouldn't touch it, while perceived inauthenticity kept the purist punks out of the audience. A more generous epitaph to Jubilee is its "shooting script." Diarylike, Jarman would jot additions and changes to the film, but also included candid pics of his actors, notes and thoughts, crude storyboards, and a feather from a fan that Amyl pleasures herself with in her rousing paramilitary number "Britannia."