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Breaking Glass

Breaking Glass(1980)

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There has been a marked paradigm shift within the film category of movies about music toward stories of dancers and away from those about musicians; for every Hustle and Flow (2005) there is Save the Last Dance (2001), Honey (2003), Step Up (2006) and Stomp the Yard (2007), all of which have spawned direct sequels and endless copycats. A generation ago, it was very different and during a brief but rich period between the late 1970s and mid-1980s there was something like a renaissance of films about the travails of singers, recording artists and gigging bands attempting to keep it real on the way to that big contract.

Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) may have been a trendsetter, taking moviegoers behind the scenes and putting a graver face on the biz than had Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) a decade earlier. Altman inserted band business as a minor plot point in his A Perfect Couple (1979) while musicians were the soul of the plot of Allan Moyle's Times Square, Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter, Jerry Schatzberg's Honeysuckle Rose, John Landis' The Blues Brothers, Alan Parker's Fame, Robert Young's One Trick Pony (1980), Taylor Hackford's The Idolmaker, Richard Fleischer's The Jazz Singer (1980), Menahem Golan's disco Christian parable The Apple and Konrad Wolf and Wolfgang Kohlhasse's Sunny Solo from Germany - all released in the watershed year of 1980.

Released around the same time in the United Kingdom, Brian Gibson's Breaking Glass was a standard issue rags-to-riches tale of London punks who suffer the agonies of the big show, including but not limited to scary personal appearances, the predations of industry suits and the parasitic charms of hangers-on. The film is structured around the personality of scrappy singer-songwriter Hazel O'Connor (whose catchy Lene Lovich-style tunes grace and uplift the soundtrack), cast by Gibson as a renegade balladeer content to work the fringes of the London club circuit until a chance encounter with a promoter manqué (Phil Daniels, fresh from his success in Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia) convinces her to go for the gold - at the cost, perhaps, of her artistic soul.

Though Gibson retains sole writing credit, Breaking Glass feels very much like O'Connor's show - she's a true British cinema original, with a rawness that puts her somewhere on the talent continuum between Diana Dors and Billie Whitelaw. Though O'Connor is the film's raison d'être, Gibson holds back from making Breaking Glass a one-woman-show, using Daniels' self-promoter as a barometer for assessing the characters' fall from innocence: as the band members' personalities suffer from exposure to Machiavellian music producer Jon Finch, Daniels becomes more conscience-stricken and scrupulous. Filling in the supporting ranks are Jonathan Pryce as a half-deaf saxophonist, Derek Thompson (The Long Good Friday) as a disinterested music promoter, Richard Griffiths (The History Boys) as a harried sound mixer and a surprisingly trim-waisted Jim Broadbent (Topsy Turvy) as a train conductor who cautions the socially conscious O'Connor against crossing picket lines.

If Gibson's script is in and of itself no great shakes, Breaking Glass makes up for the shortfall in creativity with some impressive widescreen photography by Stephen Goldblatt (who shortly thereafter emigrated to the States to shoot such films as The Cotton Club, Lethal Weapon, Batman and Robin and The Help), which captures London at a very unflattering time in the nation's history. Gibson also shows a refreshingly cool hand in visualizing the material, squeezing the right amount of mounting dread from a scene in which a peace rally goes terribly awry but stepping back from a funny moment in which O'Connor's drugged up rising star passes a lookalike fan on the street. Though the Olive Films region 1 DVD of Breaking Glass represents the shorter American release of the film, the anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is otherwise very impressive, bestowing urgency and immediacy on a thirty year-old film. Picture and sound are first rate. Sadly, there are no extras - an audio commentary (ideally by O'Connor and Daniels, as Brian Gibson passed away in 2004) would have been ideal.

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by Richard Harland Smith