Posy Dixon’s debut feature documentary Keyboard Fantasies, which opens in theatres in New York and Los Angeles today as well as VOD, is a delicate, nuanced, and life-affirming tribute to the experimental folk-jazz turned synth singer-songwriter. With an interview with the musician, Glenn Copeland, at its centre, the film paints an intimate biographical portrait focused on his emotional and creative journey, with some visually striking images that establish a contemplative tone. Now 76, Glenn grew up in a musical household in Philadelphia (illustrated with some gorgeous archive footage and family photographs), before heading to Montreal in the early 1960s for university. Living away from his family for the first time, Glenn recalls the freedom of self-expression that he enjoyed, but also the sense of isolation that he felt as a Black gender nonconforming classical music student. We hear audio interviews with his contemporaries that illustrate the social conventions of the era. That these interviews are clearly from recorded telephone calls adds to the artistic DIY aesthetic of the film, while enhancing its sense of authenticity.
Keen to experiment, Glenn remembers the excitement he felt when buying an Atari home computer in 1983 which led to his exploration of synth music and the creation of his most well-known work, Keyboard Fantasies. Initially self-releasing the album on cassette in the mid-80s, he still had tapes left over from that original small run when he received an email enquiry about the recording and request for copies of it from Japan in 2015. It was this renewed interest in his work that led to a raft of offers from record companies wanting to reissue the entire Beverly Glenn-Copeland back catalogue, and encouraged Glenn to put a band together, Indigo Rising, to tour Europe and Canada. Dixon takes us along for the ride, allowing us to spend time with Glenn and the band as they rehearse and hang out, as well as taking us inside some of the shows themselves.
Although stylistically dissimilar to Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 20,000 Days on Earth about Nick Cave, Dixon’s Keyboard Fantasies bears comparison to that work as another rare example of a music biography where the creativity of the filmmaking itself reflects the artistry of its subject, while also offering a meaningful insight into their creative process. Glenn tells us that he doesn’t think of himself as a composer, but more “like a radio that’s tuned to certain frequencies”, something that leaves him “awestruck” when he revisits what he’s written. He recalls being inspired to write love songs about women in the 70s, but intentionally keeping them gender neutral so as not to draw attention to himself as lesbian in the years before he began to identify as a trans man. Emphasizing how societal attitudes towards gender have evolved since Glenn came of age, there’s a touching scene between him and a young trans woman in the Netherlands who thanks him for being a visible trans elder, gratitude that’s reciprocated by the musician who says that he’s learning about himself from the young trans folks whom he encounters. Similarly the film captures Glenn’s deep connection with the young audience members often in their twenties who attend his concerts. It’s a younger generation that’s all too readily dismissed as “selfish” Glenn says, and it is through his relationship with millennials, showing them love and appreciation, that the musician feels he has discovered his life’s purpose.
Having heard Glenn talk about his connection to the spirituals his mother used to sing to him, and a moving story about her passing, Dixon ends the film elegantly by turning her focus to Glenn on stage singing Deep River. Initially a cappella, the performance builds with his own accompaniment on the drums, then gradually the whole bands joins in. It’s a stirring, soulful performance and a special moment to have captured and preserved in this uplifting documentary that doesn’t only offer a fascinating insight into the artistic life of its subject, but captures his joyful spirit.
By James Kleinmann
Keyboard Fantasies opens in theaters on Friday October 29th in New York (Roxy Cinema Tribeca) and Los Angeles (Laemmle Glendale) and is also available on VOD.