When I think of the New Romantics, what comes to mind first are Boy George, Leigh Bowery, and the mood of outrageousness and community featured in the stage musical Taboo. The latter is fiction of course, and the best-known celebrities represent only a small fraction of what that scene was about. To fill in some of the rest, you couldn’t do better than to watch Kevin Hegge’s documentary Tramps! which focuses on some of the less famous contributors to the movement and its aesthetic, a focus that saves it from being a nostalgia-fest and provides an insightful view of the scene as remembered by those who created it.
The creators featured in Tramps! came of age in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, with its drastic cutbacks to the welfare state, worship of the free market, and judgmental emphasis on so-called “personal responsibility.” It was a society with designated winners and losers, but some of those slated to be losers figured out that the deck was stacked against them and simply declined to play by the rules.
Unprepared for a university education and a professional career by inferior schooling and rejecting a future of menial jobs and a council flat, some took advantage of an escape hatch provided by the system: free post-secondary arts education, which provided those with talent a chance to develop their ideas and skills in the company of like-minded people. Not surprisingly, some decided to keep on living a life of artistry and self-expression after graduation, rather than joining the so-called adult world, and some who didn’t go the arts school route also found their way to the scene and embraced the alternative way of life it offered.
As style icon Scarlett Cannon put it, although “life under Mrs. Thatcher was very harsh,” in London “we were all running around having a marvelous time, and it didn’t matter that you didn’t have any money or that you didn’t have a job because you could live in a squat and the dole money would see you through…life was kind of sweet and reasonably easy, considering that it wasn’t supposed to be.” From this side of the pond, London in the 1980s sounds a lot like New York City in the 1960s—if you were willing to forego middle-class comforts and a conventional career path, you could live for your art, and sometimes the results were fabulous.
The New Romantic scene was queer in the inclusive sense of rejecting societal norms and generally being subversive of institutions and their values. Of course, many were also queer in the more specific meaning of the term, but straight people were also welcome if they had the talent and the nerve to use it. Unfortunately, many of these talented creators died of AIDS, but a good many survived, and a number of them are heard from in this film, including Judy Blame, Princess Julia, Andrew Logan, Duggie Fields, John Maybury, Les Child, and Jeffrey Hinton. They’re still a lively lot, and the interviews plus a wealth of archival materials and an immersive soundtrack by Matthew Sims and Verity Susman give you a real sense of what the New Romantic scene was all about. | Sarah Boslaugh
The 34th Annual NewFest runs Oct. 13-25 in New York City and virtually. More information about film programs, special events, and passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.