Brothers of the Head: Rise and Fall of British Glam Band, Headed by Conjoined Twins

Easily the most disturbing and haunting film this summer, Brothers of the Head, the story of the rise and fall of a 1970s British glam band headed by conjoined twins, is remarkable for defying easy categorization.
The film avoids sensationalism of a tough, easily exploitable subject, and finding an original mode, a compellingly authentic faux documentary, of narrating a darkly bizarre yet touching tale.

First, a word about what “Brothers of the Head” is not. Though containing plenty of rock music and wild humor, it’s not a mockumentary a la “This Is Spinal Tape” and its many imitators. And though the film deals with Siamese twins, it doesn’t present them as freaks for silly comedic purposes, as the Farrelly brothers did in “Stuck on You” (with Matt Damon and Gregg Kinnear).

Reflecting their background in non-fiction, directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (who previously chronicled the disastrous results of Terry Gilliam’s effort to make a movie about Don Quixote in “Lost in La Mancha”) have found the right style to tell a darker than dark story. The film intersperses footage of the protagonists-brothers with interviews and commentary from various individuals who took part in their lives, such as doctors, reporters, musicians, and lovers.

As written by Tony Grisoni, who earlier wrote Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “In This World,” the script draws on Brian Aldiss’s noted book, centering on such intriguing issues as individual identity, love and sexuality, cooperation and rivalry, homoeroticism and sheer madness.

Episodic by nature, and maybe a tad too fractured for its own good, the tale unfolds as a feverishly mind-bending journey that, despite the built-in shocking elements largely dictated by the source material, also manages to be both tender and emotionally touching.

Tom and Barry Howe (played by physically separated twin brothers Harry and Luke Treadaway) are plucked from obscurity by a 1970s music promoter and groomed into a boy band. They grapple with impossible love, artistic rivalry, seduction into the drug scene, and finally descent into a dark inner life that’s madness.

The yarn begins when the duo are callously handed over by their destitute father to impresario Zak Bedderwick (Howard Attfield) and sent off to a secluded countryside mansion, where they’re physically abused. Constantly filmed by a documentarian, they are groomed to be a music act dubbed The Bang Bang.

At first, the twins seem (but only seem) to embrace their freakishness and channel their anxieties into music, a searing Punk Rock. The film’s early chapters detail their quick rise and raucous ride through the seamy underground of 1970s British rock (which was very different from its American counterpart).

What begins superficially like a carnival sideshow, not unlike David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man,” gradually turns into something more bizarre and disturbing. In short order, Barry, the angrier and gutsier of the two, shaves his hair into a modified Mohawk. To vent their rage, the duo scrawl cryptic lyrics and draw elaborate obscenities on their bathroom’s walls. There are also near-surreal sequences meant to evoke the brothers’ shared dreams and nightmares, one involving masturbation is truly disturbing.

Turning point occurs, when the twins meet journalist Laura Adhworth, who sets out to write a serious piece about the “media exploitation of the ‘disabled’ Howe brothers. Rudley informed that her theme doesn’t interest the twins, she nonetheless persists and soon becomes a fixture in the studio, with her tape-recorder as ubiquitous as Eddie’s camera previously was (See below).

Further complications arise, when Tom and Laura develop attraction for each other. Tragically, attached as he was to his sibling at the hip, Barry has not choice but to become involved. To a point, the romantic rivalry sparks the brothers’ creativity, and they soon develop a repertoire of songs good enough to cut a record.

Ready for their London debut, the Howes begin performing in the cramped back room of the King’s Head. The audience jeers not least because of the homoerotic elements of the performance; the brothers can’t keep their hands off one another. But the show also confirms Zak’s gut feeling, that the Howes are going to be huge, based on their physical looks, sexual appeal and, as he says, “fucking freakishness.” Zak’s shameless desire to use the boys’ physiological condition as a selling point is countered by Tom and Barry’s own deliberate attempts at self-commercialization.

As always, fame takes its toll, and there’s also the ghostly vestige of a third, malign twin that begins to rear its head (the most graphically disturbing scene in the picture). The twins quickly descend into a twilight world of envy and betrayal. As their hostility escalate, they disappear back to their family home and soon after their lives come to a truly grisly end, that cannot be described here.

Admirably, the filmmakers maintain the right distance from their text with an approach that’s neither too detached or too clinical nor too personal, instead presenting a humanly empathetic investigation of the boys’ inner psyches and souls. They intersperse fascinating footage of Barry and Tom’s musical apprenticeship, their club performances, and their hedonistic (ab) use of drugs.

The film is not perfect. The transitions from sequence to sequence are sometimes rough and abrupt, and occasionally, the filmmakers don’t maintain a balanced treatment and go for the more overtly satirical episodes, such as the interview with eccentric director Ken Russell and clips from his shelved, Gothic-like (what else from Russell) biopicture of the conjoined rockers. Moreover, it’s never clear whether Laura really wrote to a surgeon to investigate the possibility of separating the two; different medical and psychological opinions are offered on this subject.

At its best, “Brothers of the Head” provides insightful glimpse into an intimate relationship that’s complex and multi-nuanced, by turns creative and destructive, beautiful and sad, life enhancing and fatally doomed. I highly recommend that you see this poignant portrait of the physical and spiritual bonds that unite and divide.

Background information

Most of the film is set in 1974-1975.  Born in 1956, conjoined twins Tom and Barry Howe spent their childhood with the father and older sister in an isolated cottage on the shores of L’Estrange Head, on the east coast of England. Their mother died shortly after the twins were born; local gossip suggests it might have been the sight of her infant sons that killed her.

After her death, the father took his family to a remote corner of the country to keep them from the public eye. When the twins reached the age of 18, in 1974, their father sold them to Zak Bedderwick, the musical impresario and former Vaudeville child star.