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Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T.Rex review: a starry tribute

Marc Bolan with his Gibson Les Paul guitar in 1972 (Getty Images)
Marc Bolan with his Gibson Les Paul guitar in 1972 (Getty Images)

“He was literally off with the fairies,” says Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, one of a legion of high profile and perhaps unlikely fans of Marc Bolan to appear in this new documentary, Angelheaded Hipster.

Elliott loved the T. Rex man, who died in 1977, so much that he still owns a book containing his handwritten copies of Bolan’s mystical poetry. U2’s guitarist The Edge reveals that the first song he ever learned to play on the guitar was Hot Love, from T. Rex’s number one album Electric Warrior.

Nick Cave calls him a better lyricist than Bolan’s friend and rival David Bowie, while Billy Idol credits him with having a “punk attitude” as far back as 1971.

They all line up to pay tribute on camera, in a film that director Ethan Silverman and producer (and The Who’s manager) Bill Curbishley hope will remind people that Bolan was one of the very best.

Born Mark Feld, he sits at one remove from the tragic line-up of dead-too-young musical legends, perhaps because he avoided the 27 Club and died aged 29, in a car accident in leafy London suburb Barnes rather than by textbook intoxicated self-destruction.

He was also so far ahead of his time that he was already fading commercially by the time others were taking the glam sound he pioneered and running with it. One cutting from a 1973 music weekly, glimpsed in the film, contains a paragraph that suggests he has already been surpassed by both Bowie and Alice Cooper, “and even Gary Glitter seems to be making some of the right moves”.

Innocent times. Times that were well suited to a man who could shapeshift between fantastical folk, hazy psychedelia and electric space rock in a career that was over within a decade. The best bits of the documentary are the clips of Bolan in his pomp on stage, proving himself a louder, wilder guitarist than some might remember, and rocking eyeliner and a feather boa at a time when gender fluidity was an alien concept. “You’re not really bisexual are you?” asks a wide-eyed interviewer. “I’ve experienced many things in my life,” he replies, knowing exactly how to keep tantalising the curious.

What feels more confusing is that this seems to be a very belated companion film to a compilation album of the same name that was released in September 2020. Producer Hal Willner, who masterminded the starry collection and appears on screen frequently, died from Covid months before the album came out.

Much of the footage is of musicians who appeared on it mooching around the recording studio. While it’s interesting to watch croaky singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams deciding to interpret Life’s a Gas in a way that suggests that life is the opposite of a gas (Life’s a Solid?) you probably won’t care what American jazz-fusion band Snarky Puppy think of The Slider’s bassline.

More intriguing is the range of David Bowie interviews that show how the similar pair shifted from friendship to estranged rivalry and back again after Bowie conquered America and Bolan didn’t. And as the fiery concert footage shows, America really missed out.

Angelheaded Hipster is in UK cinemas from Sept 22 and available as home entertainment from Nov 6 2023.