We’re wrapping up our May theme of the month, Defiance, with this In Focus, our chance to look a little closer at some of our favorite films. And we couldn’t think of a more fitting film for the theme than Breaking Glass (1980)
The timing of the Breaking Glass‘s release in 1980 is crucial, as it is set against the backdrop of growing economic troubles, racial tensions, and youth disenfranchisement that defined the UK in the late 1970s. The winter of 1978 and 1979 has often been dubbed the Winter of Discontent in Britain due to strikes and labor unrest.
To make a statement on these conditions, the filmmakers drew from a familiar British filmmaking style of earlier decades. Cinephiles will recognize some of the film’s elements from the British Angry Young Man movement or the British New Wave, which is perhaps best known by the works of Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. Breaking Glass, like films of the earlier movement, is low budget with a neorealist feel, rough around the edges, and pays special attention to the daily plight of the everyman.
For all the criticisms the film makes on social issues, it comes down with equal force on the music industry. By holding these two themes up together, Breaking Glass draws fascinating parallels between the country’s exploitation and abuse of its citizens to the music industry’s similar exploitation and manipulation of its artists. This is all very fitting, because the social upheaval presented by the film is perfectly echoed by its contemporary upheaval in musical trends and culture from raw punk sounds to the futuristic New Wave.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this is our protagonist Kate and her rags-to-riches story. More accurately, it’s an upending of the classic rags-to-riches story, similar to the tragic tale in A Star is Born. Indeed, the film was considered by many to be England’s answer to Bette Middler’s runaway hit The Rose.
Hazel O’Connor gives a tour-de-force performance as Kate, the lead singer of the group Breaking Glass. Kate’s socialist ideals are juxtaposed to her pragmatic rock manager, Danny (Phil Daniels), a streetwise hustler who discovers her and develops her into a star. The film pivots around the struggles for artistic recognition and an energetic singer whose talent and sanity are jeopardized by the music industry’s power structure.
“It’s not exactly Mantovani, is it?”
“Life, I’m told, is a compromise
Lethargy in disguise
Excuses by the faint of heart
Stuck in the mud before they start”
“I don’t like the way life is for the majority of us — I don’t say I can change it, but I can sing about it.”
“Give me an inch, and I’ll take me a mile”
Hazel O’Connor stars as Kate. Although she recorded two albums prior to the film, Breaking Glass was her ticket to fame when the album made for the film became her first big hit. The album went Gold and stayed at number 5 in the UK charts for 28 weeks. The singles “Eighth Day” and ” Will You” both hit the Top 10 in the UK. She was instrumental in many aspects of the creation of the character. She chose the wardrobe, with most of the clothes being from her own personal collection. She also wrote and sang all of her character’s songs herself. It’s difficult to imagine how different Breaking Glass would have been with another actor in her part. In some ways, the film may have unfortunately foreshadowed her career, which was temporarily derailed by battles over copyrights and ownership.
Phil Daniels received first billing ahead of Hazel O’Connor for his role as the band’s manager, Danny. The up-and-coming actor had found his first major role the year before, in the Who film Quadrophenia (1979), but if you watch Bugsy Malone (1976) closely enough, you’ll see him appear briefly as a waiter. Like O’Connor, he was no stranger to the music industry himself, as a member of the new wave band The Cross in the 1970s and 1980s. You may also remember him from his narration on the classic Blur song “Parklife”. Nowadays, he might be best known for his two-year run as the character Kevin Wicks in the hit BBC soap opera EastEnders. In recent years, he’s turned his sights towards theatre, appearing in Les Miserables, some productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and more.
Brian Gibson made his feature directorial debut with Breaking Glass after a string of documentary and television efforts. He also wrote the screenplay for the film. He was briefly married to actress Lynn Whitfield and went on to direct a wide variety of films including What’s Love Got to Do with It, Poltergeist II, and The Juror. He tragically passed away due to bone cancer in 2004.
Breaking Glass features supporting performances from Jonathan Pryce (Brazil), Jon Finch (Frenzy), Peter-Hugo Daly (Gangs of New York), and Mark Wingett (Quadrophenia). Michael Bradsell (Henry V) edited, and Stephen Goldblatt (The Hunger) photographed.
DID YOU KNOW?
Hazel O’Connor went to audition looking for only a small supporting role. She was shocked when she was offered the lead part. Other singers that she went up against for the part of Kate were Toyah Willcox and Kate Bush.
On a tour to promote the album Breaking Glass, Hazel O’Connor headlined with a then-unknown and unsigned young band that she had chosen to open for her: Duran Duran. She is credited with helping launch their path to stardom.
Phil Daniels, who plays the band’s manager, and Peter-Hugo Daly, who plays the band’s drummer, were actually in a real-life band together called The Cross during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
WHAT DID THE CRITICS SAY?
“Relentlessly fast-paced, the yarn relates to reality in much the same way as a fashion photo – that is, it works as an image-conscious reflection of a time and milieu, but does not purport to portray life as it really is.” — Variety
“As written and directed by Brian Gibson, who is following very much in the tradition of ‘Stardust’ and other rock versions of the ‘A Star Is Born’ story, ‘Breaking Glass’ is skillful and handsome in ways it doesn’t entirely need to be. However, it’s also lively and involving – even if it doesn’t ring true.” — Janet Maslin, New York Times
“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.” — Fernando F. Croce, Slant
“Super-cynical first feature by ex-TV director Gibson. Its version of punk London in the ’80s is a bizarre mix of Big Brother fantasy and shallow realism, with rock singer Kate (O’Connor) making it to rock star and losing her marbles on the way.” — Time Out
“The predictable story is energized somewhat by the film’s stylish, slick presentation of its pop milieu.” — TV Guide
“Breaking Glass is a decent curio which ends up being both bi-polar and bittersweet. It challenges a lot of the conventional thinking about music at the end of the ’70s/beginning of the ’80s in the UK. It straddles the fence of punk and ‘new wave’ while championing the specific world view of its lead, singer/songwriter Hazel O’Connor.” — Bill Gibron, DVD Talk
Breaking Glass is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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In Focus Archive:
The Devil and Miss Jones
Knock on Wood
Who’s Minding the Store?
Knock on Wood
May 30, 2017