In early 1972, Britain lay aglitter under the spell of Marc Bolan, the corkscrew-haired prince of all the pretty things. With his band, T. Rex, the progenitor of the glam rock movement more or less ruled the airwaves of the isles and already had a slew of number one singles and top-ten hits under his belt. His friend David Bowie had yet to hit the big time, and Bolan was being described as the successor to the Beatles. Setting aside the acoustic guitar-and-bongos shtick of Tyrannosaurus Rex (the band’s first incarnation) in favour of full-fledged electric rock ’n’ roll had done more than good for the “bopping imp.”
That year, at the height of “T. Rextasy” (as it was affectionately called), Ringo Starr set out to capture the physically diminutive, yet larger-than-life star on celluloid. To be adored by millions and reign at the top of the charts was one thing, but to be so endorsed by a Beatle was another. According to British publicist Alan Edwards, who once worked for Bolan, Starr saw in Bolan not only a fascinating subject, but also a friend. “Ringo and Marc had more in common than meets the eye,” he says. “They both . . . had an off-the-wall sense of humour. I think this is very important. There was obviously a great chemistry between the two.” Giggles aside, the film was, in a sense, Starr’s way of passing the torch to Bolan, the idol of a new generation. If Bolan had hitherto only been talked about as the biggest thing since the Fab Four, Starr – as director, producer, musician, and actor – actually portrayed him as such.
As far as rock ’n’ roll films go, Born to Boogie is quite unlike any other of its time. Given Starr’s involvement with what production company Apple Films called “the boogie premiere of the century,” it was only natural that the film would be informed by the Beatles’ filmic output. That it draws thematic inspiration from Magical Mystery Tour in particular is clear. Like the 1967 BBC television special, it features performances interspersed with surreal episodes over the span of an hour. However, unlike the Beatles film, which featured no live performances or concert footage, these are what make Born to Boogie special. For the purposes of the film, Starr & co. documented two sold-out concerts Bolan played at the Empire Pool in Wembley on a single evening to audiences of 10,000 each. Along with fragments of these concerts are two visceral performances by Bolan, Starr, and Elton John filmed at Apple Studios’ Savile Row headquarters and an acoustic medley of T. Rex hits performed by Bolan – playing the part of Carroll’s Mad Hatter – and a trio of violinists on the grounds of John Lennon’s Tittenhurst Park estate. In other words, Born to Boogie, with its preference for live spontaneity over scripted miming, is everything its psychedelic predecessor was not.
The word “worshipped” puts it lightly. The mostly teenage boys and girls seen during Bolan’s concerts clap their hands, scream, stamp their feet, wave banners, and gyrate with abandon, keeping the policemen present on their toes. Bolan, who’d always wanted to be famous, is only too happy to indulge in the Dionysian frenzy, rocking out on his Les Paul and Stratocaster guitars in a T-shirt adorned with his face while flanked by a huge cardboard cutout and picture of himself. In the frenetic studio performances of “Children of the Revolution” and an unforgettable rendition of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” by the most formidable supergroup since the Rock and Roll Circus’ Dirty Mac, even Elton John and Starr seem awestruck in Bolan’s presence.
Superstardom is only one part of the story, however. In the vignettes, Bolan jokes around with Starr, displaying a humility and candour that belie the aura surrounding him; and he recites verse, reminding all that he is, first and foremost, a poet. “Footsteps stamping through the citadel of your soul,” he says atop a shiny Ford Thunderbird to Starr, dressed up as a dormouse. “Rock ’n’ roll children born to dance to the beat of your heart and dive to the rhythm of the universe. What say you, friend?” Considering that these days Bolan is not only largely forgotten vis-à-vis his contemporaries, but is also often derisively spoken of as a narcissistic, sugar-coated pop star, such endearing scenes present a welcome counter-narrative.
History has not been kind to Bolan, despite his continuing influence and the magnitude of what he achieved during his all-too-brief time on Earth, and Born to Boogie has suffered accordingly. Neither its star-studded cast nor its two rereleases in 2006 and 2016 (the latter accompanied by nationwide screenings in the UK) has prevented it from slipping into relative obscurity amongst those unfamiliar with Bolan. On the contrary, other glam rock-era films (most notably D. A. Pennebaker’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; 1973), as well as ones that Born to Boogie ostensibly paved the way for, such as Led Zeppelin’s fantasy-cum-concert flick The Song Remains the Same (1976) – which “[also] had a sense of the absurd,’ says Edwards – are still heralded as classics. Worse still, Born to Boogie has been criticised by some for being self-indulgent and dated. Although Bolan loved the idea of being a rock ’n’ roll star, he is, for the most part, simply enjoying the ride and doing what he does best. “I remember Marc loving ‘it’ as opposed to loving himself,” Edwards explains. “He wasn’t as strategic as some performers. Things weren’t over planned. . . . . I didn’t get the impression that he took himself that seriously.”
It’s only at the very end of the film, during an extended freak-out of “Get it On,” that Bolan, shrieking and battering a flimsy tambourine against his guitar-turned-phallus in a contrived attempt to one-up Hendrix, gives in to his every whim and perhaps lets his ego get the better of him; surely the naysayers can forgive him that. And, while Born to Boogie might well be dated, it only is in the same way as the Pennebaker and Zeppelin films, which likewise preserved for posterity different faces of the zeitgeist of an epoch.
Since Bolan’s untimely death at the age of 29 in 1977, numerous documentaries have attempted to tell his story and do him justice. Some, such as 2007’s The Final Word, are worthy of note, but none have succeeded in capturing the essence of Bolan and his rock ’n’ roll alchemy like Born to Boogie. A teen idol he certainly is here; but one also sees Bolan as a masterful musician, inveterate poet, and beguiling figure. In other words, the film depicts Bolan exactly as he saw himself and how he likely wanted to be remembered.