Derek Jarman was too old and too accomplished to be a punk. By 1977, the openly gay filmmaker and artist was already 36 and had an impressive CV that included doing set design for Ken Russell’s The Devils and directing Sebastiane, a landmark in gay cinema, notable for not only its frank depiction of the male body but also for its dialogue which was entirely in Latin. Nonetheless, Jarman gathered together notables from London’s burgeoning punk scene, including a young, lithe Adam Ant, to create Jubilee –the first and, arguably best, punk movie ever.
The plot, as such, centers on Queen Elizabeth I who, with the help of court occultist John Dee (played by Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Richard O’Brien), sees her land 400 years into the future. It’s a Britain filled with garbage and plagued with crime. Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, was killed in a mugging. As Queen Elizabeth I wanders around the wreckage of the British Empire, she encounters a bunch of leather-clad toughs including Amyl Nitrite (played by Malcolm McLaren protégé Jordan), Crabs (Little Nell, also from Rocky Horror) and Mad (Toyah Willcox, who would later go on to delight a generation of toddlers by voicing The Teletubbies). The highpoint of the movie is, without a doubt, is when Jordan performs a risqué dance to a glammed up version of Rule Britannia.
Jarman tapped into the same feelings of anger, disillusionment, and nihilism that the Sex Pistols articulated. As Jarman told The Guardian in 1978, “We have now seen all established authority, all political systems, fail to provide any solution – they no longer ring true.” Jubilee feels like a John Waters movie without the gross-out gags. A Paul Morrissey movie but with a clear sense of political purpose. It’s giddy, uninhibited, violent and occasionally quite disturbing.
Reactions to the movie were, not surprisingly, mixed. Yet the people who really despised the flick weren’t cultural conservatives as you might expect. They would fret over the film when it finally aired on late night TV in 1986. But in 1978, when the film came out, the very people the film was about hated it. Souxsie Sioux, of Souxsie and the Banshees fame, had a bit part in the film but nonetheless thought that it was “hippy trash.” Punk fashionista Vivienne Westwood hated the movie so much she made an insulting T-shirt about it. And Adam Ant, who went to the premiere with his mother, initially thought the film was terrible. Jarman didn’t give a toss. “I don’t particularly want people to like the film or what it depicts,” he once told a reporter. “I simply hope that it makes them feel that something is going on.”
Yet over the years, the film’s reputation has steadily improved. Ant, for instance, has changed his opinion of Jubilee. “Today I think it’s an amazing achievement and testament to Derek Jarman’s persistence and ingenuity.” And historian Jon Savage, who literally wrote the book on punk, declared that “it’s the best film about punk, for all its failings.” British critic Julian Upton went one step further:
Jubilee is the most important British film of the late ’70s. Okay, it faced little competition at the time — just a weak trickle of ill-conceived co-productions, third-rate softcore, and the usual heritage and nostalgia. Next to those, Jubilee, then as now, stands out like a sore thumb.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.