Music

Marc Bolan: AngelHeaded Hipster doc shows how manic pixie dream boy inspired Nick Cave, U2 and more

Director Ethan Silverman on his new documentary, which shows Nick Cave, U2, Joan Jett and Beth Orton interpreting the songs of Marc Bolan.

Marc Bolan playing guitar in a field

Marc Bolan's music and influence is explored in a new film. Image: Getty / Daw Bell

When Marc Bolan died just before his 30th birthday in 1977, the world lost a musical pioneer. A manic pixie dream boy whose posters adorned a million teenagers’ walls, just as his songs – which evolved from psychedelic folk to glam rock and beyond – inspired everyone from punk pioneers the Ramones and heavy metal heroes Def Leppard to Prince.

Yet, perhaps because he did not crack America in the way his pal and fellow glam explorer David Bowie managed, he’s never quite received the respect for his music as he deserved.

Director Ethan Silverman’s new documentary, AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex, attempts to right this wrong.

The film began as a promo for a tribute album of famous fans covering Bolan’s songs. But Silverman realised the footage he was getting as Nick Cave, U2, Joan Jett, Beth Orton, Devendra Banhart and Macy Gray reinterpreted Bolan and T. Rex classics, added to the archive footage he was uncovering during his research, could be more. It could be a real movie.

“This film is not Oppenheimer or Barbie, but I’ve just come out of a screening at IMAX and it works. Because Marc Bolan can fill an IMAX screen at any resolution,” says Silverman. “It even looked good.”

Silverman was, he says, a latecomer to Bolan’s party.

“Like most Americans, I knew Get It On, but Bowie and Queen were our Glam Rock Gods when I was in high school.

“So I needed to educate myself. And I did. And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I did a deep dive and I couldn’t believe how modern it sounded, and how everyone who is anyone I could hear in their songs and lyrics how they were inspired by Mr Bolan. So I became obsessed.

“I hear it everywhere. He claimed the punks and they claimed him. Prince, of course. But Harry Styles – whether he knows it or not – Prince, Lenny Kravitz.

“I suggested a tribute album to Bill Curbishley, who is the manager of The Who. But the record industry was not in great shape. But when I said I would film various artists of all shapes and sizes and ages and styles coming in to reinterpret this music, he said, ‘I’ll get the money for that.’ So that’s how the film started. As a way to promote the album. I was inspired by Beyonce’s Lemonade. And it grew from there. It was just made out of love for the music.”

Bolan pushed boundaries of both sound and vision – expanding the possibilities of masculinity, popularising new exciting musical genres – while topping the charts and maintaining a huge following. 

Silverman’s film tells his story, while also documenting the recording of 2020’s tribute album.

Marc Bolan songs are reinterpreted by a range of musicians in Ethan Silverman’s new film

Nick Cave was the first musician to agree to take part. And his reworking of Cosmic Dancer – recorded and filmed by Silverman – has some magic about it.

Whatever was going through Cave’s mind as he reworks Bolan’s beautiful creation at the grand piano, the emotion is writ large on his face. He sings Bolan’s words “I danced myself out of the womb” and it’s easy to imagine him thinking about his son, Arthur, who died in 2015. It’s the most powerful moment in the film.

“Nick Cave had not done anything publicly for a year at that point, so it was a very intense atmosphere,” recalls Silverman.

“When he started working through the song, I got goosepimples. The feeling in the studio was incredible.

“Nick Cave brought this project into being in a big way. We had not finished the contracts, we were not financed yet, but [the album’s producer] Hal Willner – god bless Hal, who we lost in the early days of Covid – had told Nick about the project. Nick said he wanted to be involved and knew which song he wanted to do. So Hal set up the first session with Nick Cave and I filmed it. At the end of the night, Hal in his inimitable way turned to me and said, ‘Ethan, it’s all downhill from here.’ It was that special.”

If the film at times struggles to balance the new recordings and the old archive, it serves as a reminder that these artists featured began as devoted music fans.

“How about that interview with Joe Elliott from Def Leppard? I think they all realise what I did in my deep dive,” continues Silverman.

“Even though he dressed up and really camped it up in a groundbreaking way, as a musician Marc Bolan was authentic. It comes through in his songwriting and his performance. And other really smart artists recognise authenticity when they see it.”

At the time of Bolan’s death, punk rock was exploding in a big way. Bolan showcased some of the bands on his weekly music show, Marc, on ITV in the weeks before his death.

It feels like he could have gone anywhere from there. Into a more comfortable, light entertainment personality space, or further into leftfield, inspired by the punk’s he had himself inspired.  

Silverman has his own idea of how this 20th Century Boy would have approached a new millennium? 

“This might surprise some people, but I do think he would have discovered at some point in his career the synthesizer and electronic music,” he says.

“There’s a self-made, self-driven quality to early electronics. And I think he would have experimented – because a lot of people who are involved in visual mediums relate to that music in a big way. And he does say towards the end of our film that he wanted to get into film.”

AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex is available on Blu Ray and DVD from 13 November.

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