Despite its classification as a rock n’ roll mockumentary, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Brothers of the Head is of a markedly different stripe than Spinal Tap, wielding its carnival sideshow story about a Siamese twins-fronted ‘70s British glam band not for parodic silliness but, rather, for surprisingly tender, haunting melodrama. An English Chang and Eng, Tom and Barry Howe (played by physically separate real-life brothers Harry and Luke Treadaway) are callously handed over by their destitute father to impresario Zak Bedderwick (Howard Attfield) and whisked off to a secluded countryside mansion, where they’re physically abused, constantly filmed by a documentarian, and groomed to be a gimmicky music act dubbed The Bang Bang.
Exploitation is the early going’s primary focal point, with Bedderwick’s crass, shameless desire to use the boys’ physiological condition as a selling point subtly countered by Tom and Barry’s own deliberate, canny attempts at self-commercialization. Yet while the potential pitfalls of celebrity are dutifully explored throughout Pepe and Fulton’s convincingly authentic faux documentary (written by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘s Tony Grisoni, from Brian Aldiss’s book), it’s the filmmakers’ empathetic investigation of their protagonists’ agonized psyches that touches a raw, affecting nerve.
Interspersing footage of Barry and Tom’s musical apprenticeship, their club performances, and their hedonistic dabbling in drugs and romance with surreal sequences meant to evoke the brothers’ shared, tortured dreams, Brothers of the Head exhibits Terry Gilliam’s knack for marrying a sense of heightened—if, in this case, counterfeit—verisimilitude with vivid, borderline-phantasmagoric expressiveness. And just like their Lost in La Mancha subject, the directors also occasionally find it difficult to maintain such a balance, their conceit carried out so persuasively that some supposedly satiric elements—such as a few corny, Behind the Music-style revelations and confessional interviews—tread perilously close to lapsing into actual, outright triteness.
Still, as befitting a tale about boys literally attached at the hip, the hypnotic film is a subtextual swirl of identity issues, madness, and homoeroticism, its thematic undercurrents periodically materializing but never so overtly as to overwhelm the more immediate drama of Tom and Barry’s downward spiral facilitated by a Yoko-style reporter. Toss in clips from a shelved, gothic-tinged biopic of the conjoined rockers (helmed by freaky deaky Ken Russell, who waxes philosophic about their tragic lives) and some tormented songs, and the result is a poignant meta-portrait of both punk rock ferocity and the physical and spiritual bonds that unite—and often divide—kin.