After the release of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee in 1978, Vivienne Westwood, outraged at what she saw as a misrepresentation of punk, took to her then preferred medium, the t-shirt, to express her displeasure. The “Open T-Shirt to Derek Jarman,” with its wordy scrawl, is a rather confusing cultural artifact in that it now seems rather counterproductive. For starters, punk certainly had more important enemies in 1978 than a queer experimental filmmaker and visual artist, a fellow member of the counterculture whether she liked it or not, and what’s more, some of the language seems rather homophobic, being that it attributes the film’s fancier bits to “a gay (which you are) boy’s love of dressing up and playing at charades.” Of course, all of that is to say nothing of the sheer impracticality of using a t-shirt to communicate a lengthy essay. But to be fair, it was a time when what punk meant, what it was trying to say and what it wanted, was a fiercely debated topic, especially in the UK and especially among those who would claim the movement as their own, Still, in hindsight, Jubilee seems to not only encapsulate what was in the air in the late 70s, but also punk’s roots and hints of its future.
Jubilee started life as a planned 8 mm film about the actress/model Jordan, whose outrageous couture and attitude fascinated Jarman, but the project soon grew into something more ambitious, “a film about punk”, before transcending even that broad description. Writing in The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries explains that, “Jarman was not a punk: he was too old (36), too posh and his CV was uncompromising.” but his unique voice and habit of working out of derelict London warehouses which were populated by a rotating cast of local weirdoes and instigators,is often likened to a UK version of another punk forebear, Andy Warhol, and his notorious Factory. If he was a bit out of time with the burgeoning scene, however, you wouldn’t know it from watching Jubilee, which follows (well, kind of follows) a time travelling Elizabeth I as she calls upon an angel to show her the future of her kingdom, only to be confronted by a nation in the throes of an economic, social and political meltdown, a post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by nihilistic youth. It’s a scathing satire, a provocation that went largely unnoticed by those it savaged so thoroughly; “Not until 1986,” writes Julian Upton, “on its late-night British TV premiere, did it start to upset its targets; by then it was too late.”
But perhaps Jarman’s age and experience gave him a bit of perspective, since beyond incorporating all of the then-current punk buzzwords (“No Future!”), he also had the good sense to include elements of what had come before. The original score of the film is composed by Brian Eno, who, even though the first Roxy Music album had come out a scant six years before, was by then something of an elder statesman. Punk is traditionally thought of as a rejection of what rock had become in the early and mid-70s, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, and Eno’s groundbreaking avant-pop was a big influence (not that he ever stopped making waves; the same year Jubilee was released, he was producing Devo’s landmark debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!).
Another hold-over from the proto-punk days is Jayne County (aka Wayne County), the transsexual former Warhol superstar who appears in the film as a sell-out singer whom the main characters usurp by murdering her in her swanky apartment. In the New York melting pot from which punk originally sprung, County was one of the most in-your-face performers, upstaging the New York Dolls, with whom she often shared a stage, and serving as an inspiration for punk’s first wave, including the Ramones and Patti Smith. Her outright refusal to be beholden to uptight sexual morays would have naturally struck a chord with Jarman, the outspoken LGBT activist who crusaded for acceptance even while dying of AIDS, but her appearance here also smartly connects the UK punk milieu to its American birthplace.
While the contributions of Eno and County are fascinating markers of punk’s genealogy, where the film really earns its reputation as “Britain’s only decent punk film” is by telling the music’s future. Adam Ant, still a few years away from his new wave breakthrough, appears as a handsome young nobody called Kid, who aims to become a star by hooking up with a sleazy entertainment impresario, despite his initial concerns about being “ripped off”. Of course, life would soon imitate art when real life sleazy entertainment impresario Malcolm McLaren convinced Ant’s eponymous backing band to abandon the singer, at which point he reinvented himself as the underappreciated New Romantic tastemaker who’s still touring today.
Less prominent, and in a few cases uncredited, roles are filled by members of Souixsie and the Banshees and the Slits, two groups who helped expand upon the music’s initial explosion of creative energy in the post-punk era. Both bands took punk’s original no-rules ethos to heart, creating something wholly original rather than falling prey to three-chords-and-no-more purism, with the former delving into darkly inflected psychedelia to lay the foundations for Goth, while the latter fruitfully explored punk’s longstanding relationship with reggae and dub.
That Vivienne Westwood would describe the film as “the most boring, and therefore disgusting film” she had ever seen, says less about Jubilee itself and more about her own propriety, protective feeling toward punk, which in all fairness, she did help set the visual tone of. Nowadays, her critique seems short-sighted and petty, since, in the same way Jarman’s time-hopping Queen Elizabeth I bridges the gap between the England of antiquity and its now faded empire, Jubilee pulls together punk’s past, present and future into one hallucinatory, gloriously nasty singularity.