By Michael Avila
Special to DNAinfo
“Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy” is in many ways the prototypical Tribeca Film Festival movie.
First, it’s a documentary, a festival strength. Second, it’s a documentary made in and about New York City. Third, it shines the spotlight on two talented artists and the eclectic Manhattan sub-culture in which they thrived. Of course, there is the little matter of the opening sequence: A drag queen performing Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” on a stage filled with extras dressed as Martians.
The film follows the longtime creative relationship between two legends of the New York underground art scene, performance artist Joey Arias and puppeteer Basil Twist.
The duo’s acclaimed 2008 cabaret production, Arias With a Twist, serves as the lynch pin to the uneven movie. Director Bobby Sheehan occasionally veers off-course in trying to establish historical context, but the doc’s biggest problem is that, for a profile of two talented gay men who came of age during such a colorful era, it’s remarkably straightforward and sedate.
Few characters were as vibrant or popular as Joey Arias among the downtown art crowd in the late 70s and early 80s. The period was one of experimentation and extreme characterization back when that part of Manhattan was more rough around the edges.
In New York City, you are who you know, and Arias apparently knew everybody. His social circle back in his early years included actress Grace Jones and artist Andy Warhol, who turns up here in old footage doing some world-class name-dropping. Others who were part of Arias’ crowd included future fashion stars Ruben and Isabel Toledo, who designed the dress First Lady Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s inauguration, and Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Mixing recollections from friends and family with archival footage in standard documentary form, Sheehan follows Arias’s migration from California to New York in the mid-1970s. He quickly used his charm and talent to become a fixture in the underground club scene. He even appeared with David Bowie on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979. Much as he most likely does in real life, the bombastic Arias dominates “Arias With a Twist,” to a fault.
For while the director does delve into Twist’s back story and we learn that he’s a gifted puppeteer. He was the only American to graduate from a renowned puppetry training program in France, but his story is clearly playing second fiddle. The high point of Twist’s part of the documentary is a fascinating scene where he maneuvers a wooden puppet through a dramatic, intricate dance.
Another questionable decision involved the director inserting himself into the movie to comment on Arias. It only reinforced the belief that the tone of “Arias With a Twist” was a bit too friendly and reverential.
Forget about any behind-the-scenes melodrama or scandal. Judging by the film, "Arias and Twist" experienced few, if any, bumps in the road along the way to stardom. Neither fell victim to any of the common trappings of fame. If they did, the movie didn’t address them.
The film’s most emotional sequence had to do with the devastatingly quick rise of AIDS in the early 1980s. Several close friends of Arias and Twist in the city’s close-knit artist community lost their lives to it. The recollections of those days were vivid and haunting.
But life went on. For Arias that meant even greater success, culminating in his being emcee of the Vegas Cirque du Soleil show “Zumanity.” For Twist, it meant working off-Broadway and on a Harry Potter movie. The two would come together in 2008 for the show that would mark the high point of their careers.
The Docufantasy is a collage of art styles; part drag show, part cabaret, part performance art. The one-man show combined Arias’ showmanship with Twist’s puppeteering genius to perfection. It led to a Drama Desk nomination for Most Unique Theatrical Experience.
There is a lot to like about “Arias With a Twist.” First, there is the incredible footage from one of Manhattan’s most electric eras. Students of New York’s creative arts heritage should find the movie quite interesting for that reason alone.
Joey Arias and Basil Twist are experimental art icons for good reason, and “Arias With a Twist” goes a long way toward explaining why. These two men deserved to be captured on film.
It probably would have been a bit more interesting if someone other than a friend had made the documentary.