Onward Christian Rock Star…



Filmmaker Peter Watkins’ bold, incendiary 1967 feature, Privilege, is many things, but “subtle” is not one of them.  It is the story of a complicit pop star turned prop star in an authoritarian autocratic near-retro-future version of Britain- one that now plays as all too prescient.

Inspired by an overly reverent documentary about then-hot pop star Paul Anka, Watkins set out to fictionalize the whole thing via the straight-faced cautionary filters of fascism and science fiction.  Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones is the would-be Anka surrogate, an existentially strained mod demigod called Steven Shorter.  Jones is fine in the role that requires both dynamic rock star performance and plenty of glazed wallowing.  When his hair gets mussed, one could squint and see The Who’s Roger Daltrey, who is both a better actor and better singer, but probably not as good at the required dejected angst.  Fortunately for Jones, dejected angst characterizes eighty percent of Shorter’s screen time.

Watkins (Punishment ParkThe Gladiators), with this off-kilter and deliberately paced feature debut, boldly economizes the studio-granted opportunity to say something.  While there are moments of absurdity that lean into satire, Privilege remains a far cry from, say, the spirited Beatles movie work of director Richard Lester– although the sight of a stumbling performer in a bulbous Apple costume begs a momentary link, perhaps even a jab.  

Later, when a moppy-haired Brit quartet of rockers imposes a pop makeover onto “Onward Christian Soldier” while a gaggle of money-hungry and conniving clergy look on, one might wonder if we’re witnessing a sideways birth of Christian rock music.  (Answer: It’s not that.  But it is a cynically justifiable thought in some circumstances).  There’s no reason to suspect that Watkins’ harsh portrayal of organized Christianity is rooted in anything more than secular discontent with the church.  For those who cling to a purer love-based gospel, his vision evokes a palpable repulsion.  The repulsion is entirely towards the evil appropriation of the faith within the story itself- an insidious reality in certain sectors for the past 2000+ years.  In short, the truth that Watkins tells may well be more potent than even he realizes.

In this dark and calmly twisted land of Union Jack armbands giving copious Sieg Heils at their God-damned militarized rallies, image is everything.  The only thing that could stand in the way of the consolidated new government wherein the conservatives, liberals, and the church have merged would be a youth uprising.  So, in a sly move, the Powers That Be opt to infiltrate that scene with released convict and telegraphed bad boy Shorter as their ringer.  First, they trot him out before screaming fans handcuffed, in a cage, and being beaten by grinning police officers.  He’s speaking (singing) the crowd’s language of anger and disaffection, you see.  They weep in despair as he’s dragged off stage, wrists bleeding.  Seed planted.

The crux of Privilege arrives in the form of what the film’s narrator describes as the single biggest in-person gathering in the country’s history.  (Though the film’s low-end budget can’t visually back up the claim). Incandescent crosses illuminate the stage, adorning enormous images of the star of the show, Steven Shorter. Clergy, cops, soldiers, marching bands, and fans all take the field.  More “Christian rock” is performed.  A speech about the virtues of conformity is given.  Then, as the pitch is properly fevered, Shorter, dressed in head-to-toe crimson blood of Christ cosplay, takes the spotlight.  Per the advancing long-game plot, this is where, unhandcuffed and freed, he will publicly “repent” of his sins against this grossly warped fusion of God & country. It would all be dismissible as too ludicrous, too on-the-nose ridiculous (as it was in 1967) if we haven’t been living in it since at least 2016.

Jean Shrimpton, a woman whom history likes to remember as The First-Ever Supermodel, occupies the role of Shorter’s personal portrait painter and love interest, because, well, dang.  Someone knew her number, made a good enough offer, and she said yes.  Done and done.  Like Jones, Shrimpton is just fine- surprisingly fine, even- in her non-exploitative role.  (As far as sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll go, Privilege scores only with the latter… and not particularly rollickingly).  Also like Jones, this resume entry did not lead to much else in the way of movie work. But that’s okay for Ms. Shrimpton-  she’d already landed on her feet as the highest paid and most photographed woman alive at the time.

Privilege, while not strictly cinema par excellence, stands as a film entirely primed for and worthy of (re)discovery.  In terms of thematics- this movie’s central fuel- the world has, unfortunately, caught up with it.  A single glance at the Trump phenomenon reveals a garish blobbing-together of church and state, apparently a longtime wish fulfillment for so many of the former president’s inexplicable (or really, entirely explicable) evangelical fan base.  Of course, the result was nothing but an opportunistic sham, but that doesn’t stop MAGA-ites from continuing to ride that crazy train full throttle.  Similar crap has gone down in England and elsewhere, within the same timeframe.  That a laid-bare cautionary portrait such as Privilege went ignored for so long triggers a low-level version of anger not unlike the anger that the COVID vaccinated routinely harbor for the willfully unvaccinated.  “It’s been right here for so long…!!

Actually, in fairness, Privilege has been pretty obscure.  Over twenty years ago, it saw separate DVD releases in the U.S. and the U.K.  Is it or has it ever been streaming?  Who knows.  Now, Scorpion Releasing, via Kino Lorber, has resurrected Privilege to Blu-ray.  It looks quite good in its native widescreen, as drab and visually blah as it ever was from its 1967 get-go.  For the only disc extra aside from trailers, filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer provides an excellent commentary track, walking us through all of Privilege’s key points of interest.  Kremer really, really knows his stuff when it comes to British youth culture of the time, the career of Watkins, the film’s stars, and all the ways that Privilege proved such a hot button.  He speaks at a digestible pace, but never segues into droning.  He even sings just a little bit.

The music of Privilege, including the hit songs “I’ve Been a Bad, Bad Boy” and “Free Me”, proves hauntingly resonant if not wholly memorable.  For a deeply conceptual film that often slips into musical performance mode (with several songs allowed to be played in their entirety), this is a moderate issue.  For many though, the dealbreaker would be the strangely slow rhythms of the storytelling itself.  Watkins, to his uncompromising credit, allows Jones and others to sometimes stop cold, with uncomfortable silence the only thing filling the void.  Initially it feels like amateur filmmaking, but by the end, we see that it is altogether deliberate.  It might be that Jones isn’t a good enough actor to fully sell Shorter’s breakdown without this odd trick.  In any case, it works out.

For the several reasons noted above, and likely others not considered here, Privilege is not the most accessible act.  The film didn’t exactly shoot up the charts anywhere upon its original release, and the same will likely prove true for this high-definition physical release.  But for those of free and sound mind, and/or a secure spirit, it can be your privilege to add Privilege to your film library.