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SXSW 2021 Review: 'Swan Song' sings loud and proud

Todd Stephens' 'Swan Song' is about the life, the influence, and the sharpened sheers of Ohio's local-legend hairstylist Pat Pitsenbarger.

Udo Kier in "Swan Song."
(Image: © SXSW)

Our Verdict

'Swan Song' is a showcase for Udo Kier that is victoriously vulnerable, inspiringly extravagant, and emotionally indulgent as he tackles a role that will deservedly help define his storied career.

For

  • ✂️ I'll repeat, Udo Kier.
  • ✂️ Tremendous, brimming levels of heart.
  • ✂️ Sincere, yet fierce and playful.
  • ✂️ An important reminder that small-town heroes are still heroes.

Against

  • ✂️ A couple tonal hiccups.
  • ✂️ Takes a minute to find its rhythm.

Swan Song is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

Filmmaker Todd Stephens orchestrates an earnest ode to legacies, social change, and midwestern landscapes in Swan Song. Udo Kier is fetching and fabulous as Sanduskian hairstylist Pat Pitsenbarger, or "Mister Pat" if he's in drag, as a pillar of the community who never feared Ohio's perception of his proud flamboyance. Stephens commemorates an openly-gay man who, through Kier's performance, ponders who'll remember his maverick legacy, yet Stephens' narrative provides such an answer through cinematic immortalization. Stephens' tether to Sandusky and Pat Pitsenbarger helps mold a script that solemnly explores the difficulties of change, the importance of individual expression, and the trickling sands of time passing through an hourglass's chute—but, don't fret. Swan Song is brighter than a Saturday night disco ball.

Not only talking about the gaudy-but-fab costume designs, spotlights on Sandusky architecture, or the shine from Pat Pitsenbarger's many bejeweled rings visible from cosmic quadrants.

Pitsenbarger was once known as the "Liberace of Sandusky," who made Designers Hair infamous from Vivante shampoo to wealthy customers. For decades he perfected the looks of Sandusky's most reputable socialites until one of his employees, Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), opened a competing salon across the street and sniped Pat's top client. Now Pitsenbarger folds napkins to pass the time in an assisted living home, but that changes when attorney Mr. Shanrock (Tom Bloom) comes with a forgotten backstabber's dying wish. Upon Rita Parker Sloan's (Linda Evans) post-mortem request, Mister Pat is asked to style Rita's funeral appearance—not Dee Dee, since Rita was the betrayer mentioned above. Pitsenbarger scoffs, declines, but realizes that there's a life he long forgot, so he starts walking to Sandusky on-foot, each step closer to a place less familiar.

Udo Kier sheds the scowls, sinister gazes, and insidious imposition that genre fans expect from the indie-circuit icon. The actor's portrayal of Pat Pitsenbarger blinds by personality as he struts around Sandusky in a mint-green suit with an ascot accent, regaling youthful bartenders about his years owning the drag night catwalk at Fruit & Nut in a time when homosexuality was even less accepted. Kier's catty banter with "rival" Dee Dee, kleptomaniac rationale, and transfixing exuberance is character acting with a flair for the overdramatic from the minute he fakes an injury just to feel a sweaty farmhand's touch—but there's more behind the candelabra extravagance.

Todd Stephens summons Pat Pitsenbarger back to Sandusky to stress themes that hit like waves with a continual crashing effect. Light, "insignificant" moments become the world to Mister Pat, as simple as a clothing store clerk recalling the blonde makeover she received. Grander, tender glimpses of vulnerability dredge old grudges between conservatives who might have called Pitsenbarger a friend in private but then ghosted when his lover at the time, David (Eric Eisenbrey), died of AIDS. Pitsenbarger shares sassy conversations with old-friend Eunice (Ira Hawkins) over Crown Royal on a park bench, recalling how their courageous antics paved a rainbow road in Sandusky, as two openly-gay fathers now play catch with one son and feed a newborn in broad daylight. Kier's performance must comprehend all these differences over time, acknowledge trailblazing scars, and most importantly, reconcile the pain he's tended while finding grace in existential qualms that've long dulled his once-vibrant outward explosions.

In Swan Song, a star is reborn as Udo Kier familiarizes audiences with the inspiringly exposed and defiantly effervescent Pat Pitsenbarger. Todd Stephens manages to intertwine celebrations, inquisitions and overcome obstacles between sequences where former queens cherish their debaucherous pasts. "Girl, you taught me everything I never wanted to know," Pat hears with the coyest, approving smile. Kier brings runway attitude, heavy contemplation, and unkillable mojo to a role that has him sashaying in a flowered flamingo-pink hat or jubilantly dancing on stage to Robyn nightclub hits. Swan Song is a glistening observation on lives lived, histories engrained, and the impact our actions make despite us possibly never knowing. Not only that, but never letting gastropub micro breweries steal our dance floors (it'll make sense, promise). You're here to watch Udo Kier reclaim his lipstick-smacking, magic-hands, strut-with-purpose groove back, and what a spectacular triumph worth every laugh, smile, and well-earned tear.