QDoc opening night film review: ‘Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy’

Scene from the stage production of 'Arias with a Twist'

The dream of the 80s is alive in Joey Arias, or so it seems from the waxing nostalgic at the beginning of Arias with a Twist:The Docufantasy, Q Doc’s opening night documentary that follows Arias in his latest performance, a collaboration with classically trained puppeteer Basil Twist.

The first 20 minutes of interviews with Arias’ 80s hipster pals is  tender, and I certainly sympathize with the sadness over the commodification of performance art, queerness and weirdness that has come about with the likes of Lady Gaga etc. Indeed, Joey Arias was already a brilliant Gaga-esque diva before Stephanie Germanotta was a glint in her parents eyes.

But as cute and tender as it is, it starts to get a bit tiresome. Luckily, the film moves on pretty quickly to its introduction of collaborator Basil Twist.

A classically trained puppeteer, Twist studied at the famous school of puppetry École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in France, and we’re treated to some tidbits of their annual festival. His Grandfather, Griff Williams, was also a celebrated puppeteer, who led a swing band with the irreverence of a puppet made in his own image. Some of these original 1930s pieces are even used in Arias. You get the impression that Twist’s world is one of magic and wonder, and even all the behind the scenes factory work that shows how the puppets are made doesn’t take away from the child-like joy that Twist embodies and shares generously with the viewer.

The films falters slightly when it switches back to a focus on Joey. It mires itself in the 80s by revisiting some sad aspects of Joey’s artistic past and gets lots in the pathos of AIDS related deaths. This makes it feel a bit stuck as it lurches into more of Arias’ recent life and work. When it does get to appearances at Berlin’s 2009 Gay Pride, or Joey’s role in Las Vegas performance culture, it feels a bit disjointed. One of Arias’ biggest smash hits was as emcee of the erotic Cirque du Soleil cabaret, Zumanity, that has been runnning Vegas for several years. There is so much here that filmmaker Bobby Sheehan could have equated with the collaboration for which the film is named. Basil’s skills as a puppeteer mirror so much of the athletic beauty and innate sensuality that also seems evident in the Docufantasy.

For as much as they focused on the 80s, they could have spent more time on what this film should really be about, the love that Joey and Basil share. There is a love of each other to be sure, but also quite evident is the love of their craft and audience. Just seeing clips from the actual performance were some of my favorite parts of the documentary and I felt teased every time I got a glimpse into the magical realism that the stage performance embodied while quickly being whisked away to other people’s commentary on it.

In the end, however, the Arias delivered. The duo, so suited to working together, talk excitedly about their many years of performance, but also their big plans for the future. They talk about their work as their baby and seem to practically bounce out of their chairs with cuteness as they describe their big dreams for their next project. And perhaps that is part of the reason Arias lingered unnecessarily long on the past, to remind us that no matter our baggage we still have the world ahead of us.

Here’s the trailer:

Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy plays Thursday June 2nd at 7p at the Clinton St Theater (2522 SE Clinton St)

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