Originally niche TV, drag shows are now mainstream programming, bringing a glitz and outrageous glamour to our lives at a time when we need more than ever. The timing of Thom Fitzgerald’s Stage Mother, one of the first titles to be released in UK cinemas post-lockdown, taps straight into it, even if it doesn’t manage to wholly satisfy that need..
In small town Texas, Maybelline (Jacki Weaver) is the choir mistress at her local Baptist church but when her son dies suddenly in San Francisco, she heads for the big city. That he was a drag artist she already knew, but the fact that he owned a gay bar comes as news to her – and that she’s inherited it is a total surprise. But it’s not making money and, despite the objections of her husband, she decides to stick around and try to get the place back on its feet – and help out the members of the troupe that come with her new business.
Stage mothers are traditionally seen as pushy, but Fitzgerald’s movie is softer hearted than that, leaning heavily on its San Francisco setting to reinforce its gay credentials. Hence all the touristy views of the city, even though the film was shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the slight whiff of Tales Of The City that floats in and out of the narrative. The out of towner adopted by the gay community, the mother figure gathering a surrogate family around her, the straight woman among all the gay men … you get the picture. Not that it comes close to capturing the spirit of Armistead Maupin’s classic: there simply isn’t time in its 90 minutes to develop the individual stories of Cherry (Mya Taylor), Joan (Allister McDonald) and Dusty (Jackie Beat) to anything like satisfaction, so Maybelline’s attempts to solve their personal problems seem facile and more than a little superficial.
Despite some brisk humour, the film has a clunky, old fashioned feeling, as does the idea that Maybelline’s church choir duties somehow prepared her for taking over the bar. Her big idea to revive its fortunes is a brand new show, persuading the performers to actually sing rather than lip sync. Surprise, surprise, it turns out they can actually hold a tune but, while their original acts weren’t great, the new one is not better, yet somehow it pulls in the crowds. Despite all that, the very fact that the film’s heart is in the right place – even if a lot of other things aren’t – carries it through and that proverbial warm, fuzzy feeling is never far away. That’s partly down to Weaver’s twinkly, generous performance, even if her singing voice is one of the problems with that new show, and partly down to the distinct feeling that we’ve been here before.
Stage Mother is cinematic comfort food, a knickerbocker glory of a film – dated, corny even, extravagant looking and sweet, but also reassuring and familiar. And there are times when nothing else will quite hit the spot. Even if you know that it’s really not as great as it should be.
Comedy, Drama | Cert: 15 | Altitude Film Distribution | 24 July 2020 | Dir. Thom Fitzgerald | Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu, Adrian Grenier, Mya Taylor, Jackie Beat, Allister McDonald.