In 1974, Tom and Barry Howe were 18-year-old conjoined twins living in a secluded coastal town in England when a musical impresario scooped them up with visions of molding them into a novelty act.
The twins unexpectedly emerged as willful artists, taking over the band Bang Bang and shaping it to their vision. They forged the missing link between the waning glam rock and the emergent punk movements, but their untimely deaths plunged the group into obscurity.
"Brothers of the Head" combines recent interview footage of those who worked with the Howe twins, home movies, still photos and archival footage from a variety of sources to create an engaging and poignant portrait of these enigmatic figures.
It feels like a documentary, but it isn't. "Brothers of the Head" is actually the fiction feature debut of filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Best known for their documentary work — including the film "Lost in La Mancha," a look at the disintegration of a film production — Fulton and Pepe's latest work is remarkably slippery, purposefully difficult to pin down and define.
Rather than create a winking mockumentary, they relied on their background to make "Brothers of the Head" seem entirely plausible. (This cult-ready pre-fab found object just completed a weeklong engagement in West Los Angeles and Irvine but, aside from a DVD afterlife, it could be destined — in a rather cruel twist of fate — for the same shadow existence as the figures it portrays.)
The filmmakers met screenwriter Tony Grisoni while working on "La Mancha," and the three began working together. Grisoni gave Fulton and Pepe, partners in work and life, a copy of Brian Aldiss' short novel "Brothers of the Head," which he had long been interested in adapting. The unusual structure of the book — a series of recollections of those who worked with and knew the twins but absent anything from the Howes themselves — lent itself to a documentary style.
"I don't know if I would say instant appeal," recalls Fulton on their initial reactions to the book, "but we really wanted to work with Tony and there was something about the way the novel seemed impossible to adapt that was really attractive."
Using such rock-oriented documentaries as "Gimme Shelter" and "D.O.A." as reference points, along with "direct cinema documentaries" such as "Salesman," which use a fly-on-the-wall approach made possible by small, unobtrusive cameras, the trio began to devise their portrait of the Howes.
"I had always been intrigued by the idea of shooting a fiction film adhering truly to the conventions of documentary," says Pepe. "Tony was the one who probably regretted it a little bit later because he'd do a draft of the script and we'd say, 'You want a sex scene? Sorry, there can't be a documentary crew there.'
"Films that use this device as a joke, often they allow the camera to always be in the right place at the right time. No. You have to come up with a way to tell this story within all the strict conventions of documentary. And then Tony would come back with, 'What if we gave Barry a Super 8 camera?' "
"It wasn't a bad way to develop a film," says Grisoni, speaking by phone from England, "constantly being pressured to ask, 'Is this material something that could have existed or would have survived?' "
Unlike some writers, Grisoni is especially open to reshaping his work throughout the filmmaking process. And while the three of them initially planned to mimic the book by featuring as little of the Howe twins as possible, that changed with the discovery of the real-life twins who would make their feature film debuts in "Brothers of the Head."
"The big turnaround was the casting of Luke and Harry Treadaway," Grisoni says. Already musically inclined, "they not only became the Howe twins, they learned how to lead this band with such sensitivity and obsessiveness, they hijacked the tale."
Working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, known for his collaborations with Lars von Trier, Fulton and Pepe wove together a patchwork quilt of materials from a variety of "sources," always working toward a sense of authenticity.
"To me it's about blurring all the preconceptions," says Pepe. "The film has real people talking about things that are not real, actors playing real people talking about things that are real .... If it works, it allows the audience to experience the film for what it is, rather than what they expect."
The two even take the conceit as far as to joke about who actually made the film the viewer is watching.
"It's a film by us," says Pepe.
"But it isn't a film by us," counters Fulton. "It's an interesting thing, because had we, Keith and Lou, made this documentary, we would have got-ten a lot more answers out of these people."
The film's central image and theme, two people literally bound to each other in life and work and their struggle to maintain individual identities, resonates in deeper ways for Fulton and Pepe.
"I don't think it really struck us powerfully until we had an edit of the film," says Fulton. "There's actually something good about that. If you discover right from the start what a film absolutely means to you, you can get tired of it. This way we discovered it in the process of completing the film."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun