In Breaking Glass's impressionistic mini-music video of an opening sequence, aspiring rocker Kate (Hazel O'Connor) delivers a snarling rendition of "The Writing on the Wall" while plastering stickers all over a London subway car. With its jabbing vibrancy and confrontational lyrics ("I say sir, get your nose out the paper, take a good look at what's going down"), the scene embodies the defiant thrust of punk music while subtly mourning for its eminent dissolution; as the rise-and-fall narrative unfolds, the "things to come" the heroine sings about come to refer not to her music's potential for rebellious questioning and awareness, but to its slide into commercialized pop reassurance. Whether intentional or fortuitous, the shifting cultural plates in writer-director Brian Gibson's musical drama can't help but mirror the political transition taking place in England during its "Winter of Discontent" period, when late-1970s labor upheavals gave way to the new decade's Thatcherite conservatism.
Unfortunately, this shifting-zeitgeist background turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the film, which seldom amounts to more than an energetic but formulaic show-biz saga. Guided by her young manager-cum-boyfriend Danny (Phil Daniels), Kate's meteoric rise to fame encompasses grungy gigs, rumbles in skinhead pubs, and police shakedowns, before an improvised performance set during a blackout catches the eye of big-time record producers. From then on, lovelorn Danny can only watch helplessly as the chanteuse inevitably treads down the sellout road, every last jagged edge rounded off. "Sign a contract, be part of the machinery," Kate snorts early on, equating success with systematic surrender. Over the course of the film, not only is her impudence made into a consumable commodity (exemplified by the legion of dress-alike fans attending her concerts), but Kate's own metaphor is garishly literalized in the singer's climactic number, "Eighth Day," an ostentatious lightshow—described by a producer as "a forest of neon"—that turns its leading lady into a robotic cog in a vast mechanism and crystallizes the dazzle-over-substance approach about to become the norm during the 1980s.
British cinema has a distinguished lineage of music-industry portraits, from Richard Lester's whimsical Fab Four snapshots to Peter Watkins's dystopian Privilege to the two-part rock exposé of That'll Be the Day and Stardust. By comparison, Breaking Glass is notable less for its insights than for real-life songwriter O'Connor's dynamic performances and early appearances by the likes of Jonathan Pryce and Jim Broadbent. Though the heroine's anarchic look—stripped ensemble, psychedelic lipstick, and Cleopatra bouffant—looks ahead to Lady Gaga's extraterrestrial extravaganzas, the film's view of subversive art appropriated and neutered by business plays like a compromised retread of Frank Tashlin's more biting The Girl Can't Help It. There are flashes of visual élan and punk anger scattered throughout, but, next to its predecessors, Gibson's musical can barely tap the glass, let alone break it.
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Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt's mixture of dank-pub grit and studio glitz comes through strongly enough in Olive Films's satisfyingly balanced transfer. More importantly, the audio crisply captures the punk-shading-into-new-wave tenor of O'Connor's performances.
Despite flashes of punk rawness, Brian Gibson's Winter of Discontent musical drama can barely tap the glass, let alone break it.