Drag on film goes back a long way, and to celebrate the upcoming release of The Queen of Ireland, we’re looking at ten essential dragumentaries. It's time to buff up on your ~herstory~.
The Queen of Ireland
Conor Horgan’s 2016 festival hit The Queen of Ireland puts the spotlight on Irish drag superstar Panti Bliss in a film that's anything but a standard tribute. In navigating the origins of 47-year-old Rory O’Neill’s drag alter ego, the film also charts the staunchly Catholic nation’s road to queer equality, following Panti’s role as the face of the nation’s successful vote for marriage equality.
The Queen of Ireland is a telling reminder of how far gay rights have come around the world and highlights some of the struggles that will face the Australian plebiscite.
The Queen of Ireland is out in limited release in September.
Paris is Burning
An inspiration for a generation of filmmakers, Paris is Burning is far more than just a factory for memorable one-liners and a way to teach white, straight audiences about the foreign world of drag.
Livingston’s film is a poignant look at black and Latinx gay and transgender communities, dissecting race and class, gender and sexuality. It’s an insightful encapsulation of many young queer people’s need to find a home of their choosing as a result of the hate and homophobia they have experienced from their families and society at large.
This 1968 documentary shares many links to Paris is Burning and deserves to be just as famous. A hilarious behind-the-scenes look at the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant held in New York City, The Queen is one of the earliest queer-focused documentaries and includes famous faces like Andy Warhol mingling with drag queens like Crystal LaBeija.
Director Frank Simon catches all the funny cattiness of this absurd world of drag pageantry. Rivalries and bitterness come to the surface amid a flurry of wig dramas as it examines the pressures of being a drag queen at a time where it was far less accepted.
In many ways, the world of The Queen is much different than it was in the ‘60s, but as the contestants discuss their history, how essential drag is to their lives, and much more, we also see how much is still the same. And if you just want a laugh, the final scene features Crystal LaBeija going berserk on her fellow contestants including this fabulous insult hurled at queen Rachel Harlow: “I declare her one of the ugliest people in the world.”
Ladies Please! is a delight, full of outrageous makeup, wonderful costumes, and fabulous drag routines. Released in 1994 to accompany The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, this Australian documentary from Andrew Saw peers behind the sequined curtain of a Sydney drag joint and the queens who inspired the characters played by Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce in the iconic Aussie comedy.
Ahead of the curve in terms of gender fluidity and depictions of masculinity, Lady Bump notes that “[p]eople think they know where they are sexually, but when they see drag it makes them question themselves.”
Wigstock: The Movie
The name is no accident – Wigstock was the Woodstock of drag, where a roll call of famous and up-and-coming drag queens donned their finest wigs and performed at the annual drag festival in New York City, under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
Featuring famous ‘90s drag queens like RuPaul, Lypsinka, Lady Bunny, and Jackie Beat, and with appearances by Debbie Harry, Deee-lite, Crystal Waters, and Alexis Arquette, Wigstock: The Movie is perhaps not quite as refined as Woodstock, but it is an important cultural touchstone nonetheless. Filmed in 1992 and 1993, as RuPaul was hitting the charts with “Supermodel (You Better Work)”, it is a time capsule for the rise of drag as it emerged into the mainstream.
The Legend of Leigh Bowery
One of the best scenes in Wigstock: The Movie features avant-garde drag performer Leigh Bowery giving birth to a fully grown woman on stage. If that alone doesn’t pique your interest about the Melbourne-raised artist, model, musician, designer, club promoter, and performer, then nothing will.
Charles Atlas’ The Legend of Leigh Bowery is a suitable tribute to Bowery, never shying away from the excessiveness and eccentricities that defined Bowery and his art and making a stand for why he was so important in the queer world.
The Cockettes were a psychedelic, hippie song and dance troupe that emerged out of the drug-fuelled artist scene of 1960s San Francisco. Founded by a man known only as Hibiscus, they performed predominantly improvised routines full of eccentric choreography, complete with wild costumes and makeup that had no boundaries for gender or sexuality (and that was only when they were wearing costumes at all!). At various times of their existence, the likes of Divine and Sylvester were even featured members.
In 2002, David Weissman and Bill Weber directed The Cockettes, a visually exciting and snappily edited documentary about the decade-long rule of the group. The film, a winner of many awards after playing at the Sundance Film Festival, is a must see for anybody wanting to learn about alternative forms of drag and for those who want to know about a forgotten slice of pop culture.
I Am Divine
In the world of underground culture, no figure looms larger than Divine. John Waters’ plus-size muse took the midnight movie scene of the 1970s by storm with her wildly over-the-top performances in wildly over-the-top movies like Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos.
Divine and Waters’ relationship has been explored many times before, most notably in Divine Trash, but this 2013 documentary is the first to shine the solo spotlight on “cinematic terrorist” Divine herself, paying affectionate tribute to Harris Glenn Milstead's achievements as an actor, as well as the singer of disco-trance anthems like “You Think You’re a Man” and “Shoot Your Shot”, and giving him due credit for ushering in a new age of drag queens that completely disregarded social norms.
Full of deliciously entertaining and mischievously naughty anecdotes from those who worked alongside him – yes, including Waters, but also Mink Stole, Ricki Lake, and his own mother – I Am Divine is a treat.
Drag Becomes Him
Far removed from the days of Divine and The Cockettes - but not so far away from their somewhat cockeyed sensibility - is Jinkx Monsoon. The winner of season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race says himself that not many 23-year-old boys make such a good 40-year-old woman, and its his reverence for those who came before him – remember his incredible Little Edie from Snatch Game? – that make him an exceptional drag queen.
Adapted from a web-series by Monsoon’s friend Alex Berry, Drag Becomes Him highlights Monsoon’s life in and out of drag in his home town of Seattle. There are lots of docs out there that follow the daily routines of modern drag queens, but Jinkx’ reigns supreme, not just because Jinkx is so entertaining, but because even out of drag as Jerick Hoffer, he has so many powerful things to say and so many funny things to show about the unglamorous side of drag.
Queens of Heart
Queens of Heart shows us the softer side of drag, proving that there's more to being a drag queen than having a sharp tongue made for plucking insults out of thin air. Appropriately subtitled “Community Therapists in Drag", we watch Darcelle XV extol advice, both to the camera and on stage at the Darcell XV Showplace - the oldest surviving drag venue in the USA.
Approaching the end of his career, Darcelle (Walter Cole out of makeup) is seen struggling with the demands of the job, keen to keep going due to the substantial loss of other gay venues in the area. The film is old fashioned, sure, but a good time nonetheless, and offers an interesting portrait of a different kind of drag queen. A sweeter one, but also an older and wise one.
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