“But you’d never cry to them, just to your soul” – Smalltown Boy, by Bronski Beat
“Small Town, Turn Away” is a personal documentary film project about a few seconds in a pop song that crystallized into the primal scream of the gay community.
Those seconds of the word “Cry,” sung in a piercing falsetto, haunted LGBT youth in small towns across continents who listened to Smalltown Boy, by the 1980s British synthpop band Bronski Beat. Thirty years after its 1984 release, the song remains iconic, illustrating the archetypal journey of queer urban escape.
Yet for those of us who awakened sexually at the dawn of AIDS, Jimmy Somerville’s vocals carried an added weight. In this age before the Internet, isolation and mortal fear marked the constant condition of the heart.
Into this milieu appeared my cousin Bobby, ten years older than me, and the first relative I was conscious of who left our Texas border town for the mythical big city in the East. From earliest childhood memory, Bobby was an enigmatic Marco Polo figure — visiting rarely, but always bringing me gifts from his New York City life. To my smalltown eyes, the gifts were strange souvenirs: band flyers from a club called CBGB, calendars for art movies that would never come to my local theater. As I grew older, I came to realize the significance of the ephemera: those gifts were cultural lifelines, coded messages to another closeted child communicating what could never be openly said.
In 1988, when I was 17 years old, my cousin returned home, ailing from the final stages of AIDS. He died on Easter morning at age 27, my greatest fears realized.
Smalltown Boys, Desire, Mourning, and Survival
“Small Town, Turn Away” uses fragments of the past to make sense of desire, mourning, and survival. The film uses historical ephemera, archival footage, and interviews to explore cultural conditions that gave birth to the Cry of the smalltown boy.
Traveling from the Mexican-American border of South Texas to New York, San Francisco, London, and Berlin, the film weaves my story of Bobby, the story of “Smalltown Boy”, and reflections of gay men who made journeys to these cities in the conservative decade of the Eighties, only to face the trauma of great loss. Now in their 50s, they react to and reflect on Bronski Beat’s song, a haunting anthem of liberation and escape in a time when they were fighting for their lives.
“Small Town, Turn Away” is a feature-length documentary that probes the nature of a primal scream, and the soul of the community that hears it.
This film project is scheduled for completion in 2018-19.
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