Filmmaker Jono McLeod returns to his old school, Bearsden Academy in an upmarket Glasgow suburb, with his intriguing feature documentary My Old School, which examines the curious case of his former classmate Brandon Lee. No, not the late actor and son of Bruce Lee, but a young Scottish man with a Canadian accent, an opera singing mother and a professor father, who went by that name when he enrolled at Bearsden in 1993. In a class of fellow 16-year-olds, Lee had ambitions of heading to medical school upon graduation. But all was not as it seemed.
I was at school in the UK in the 90s myself and can remember hearing Lee’s name on the news, but couldn’t recall the specifics of his story, so I was particularly drawn in as the details unfurled in McLeod’s film, which premiered last week at Sundance 2022. Even if you’re intimately familiar with what happened though, there’s still plenty to relish here. Essentially, Lee wasn’t who he said he was, and this is an exploration of a stranger-than-fiction story that’s the stuff of Hollywood high-concept comedy movies.
As the film opens, with a vibrant and energetic animated credits sequence that feels like a homage to the classic British teatime drama series Grange Hill, a caption tells us that “the man at the heart of this story does not want to show his face, but you will hear his voice”. As with Clio Barnard’s approach to The Arbor, McLeod frequently uses a present-day audio interview with Brandon Lee while we see actor, and queer Scottish icon, Alan Cumming on screen lip-syncing to Lee’s words. Cumming, who was at one point attached to play Lee and direct a dramatized film version of his story, lip-syncs for his life in the role, proving himself to be what mama Ru would call a lip-sync assassin. Drag Race jokes aside, it’s a rich, poignant, and nuanced performance by Cumming who fully embodies the character that emerges from Lee’s voice, while allowing him to remain somewhat enigmatic.
McLeod has managed to round up classmates who were at Bearsden with himself and Lee, placing them in a classroom setting, sitting at small desks for interviews, which not only makes for a great visual but seems to help transport the subjects—and us as viewers—back to their school days. Generally interviewed in pairs who were friends at the time, and even two siblings, these to camera interviews are warm, lively, and engaging as they share what they remember of their time with Lee and react as they are fed details that they weren’t previously aware of or had forgotten by McLeod. One of the most touching contributions in My Old School comes from Steve, among the school’s few Black students in the early 90s, who describes suffering both physical and verbal racist bullying while at Bearsden, which he recalls being eased by his friendship with Lee, who he credits with helping him get through school.
This unconventional on screen school reunion with its chorus of voices describing Lee, along with his own take on what happened, and the media’s portrayal of him at the time when he was discovered to be lying about who he was, builds to form a Citizen Kane-like portrait of ultimate unknowability. Frequently funny, there are some unsettling undertones too, reminiscent of Carol Morely’s haunting Dreams of a Life, about a woman whose body remained undiscovered in her bedsit until three years after her death, with Morely trying to piece together who she was.
Despite not being open about his true identity, Lee didn’t hide in the shadows at school and became popular by hosting parties at his grandmother’s house and driving fellow students around, and well-known for his memorable appearance in the school’s production of South Pacific. Recreations of Lee’s time at Bearsden are rendered in beautiful animation, by lead animator Scott Morris directed by Rory Lowe, allowing for a more imaginative and expansive approach than live action would likely have allowed. There is the serious dose of 90s nostalgia in the visuals, with nights out playing lazer tag or bowling, and afternoons spent record shopping, along with a great soundtrack featuring the likes of Pulp’s Do You Remember the First Time?
Although not explicitly queer, My Old School will likely deeply resonate with LGBTQ+ audience members whose school experiences had them covering up their true identities and hiding in plain sight, either because they were still questioning who they were, or out of a fear of bullying or rejection. It’s a subtext that perhaps drew queer creatives McLoed and Cumming to devoting their time to exploring this material.
Occasionally, the interviews with former classmates go over similar ground and risk becoming slightly repetitive, and at 104 minutes the film might benefit from a tighter edit. This is a fascinating film though, that continually draws you in, and a powerful meditation on memory, the passing of time, and the stories we tell about ourselves and others. Unexpectedly moving and profound. Oh, and there’s even a voice cameo by Scottish pop icon Lulu, who also has a song over the end credits.
By James Kleinmann
My Old School premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.