Brian Gibson’s 1980 film Breaking Glass has been called "a post-punk A Star Is Born," a perfect description given how it chronicles the meteoric rise and subsequent fall of a performer struggling to exorcise her creative demons. Set in a bleak pre-Thatcherite England overwhelmed by social upheaval – including labor strikes and neo-Nazis aplenty – the movie stars Hazel O’Connor as Kate, an idealistic and (at first anyways) purely art-driven singer-songwriter who spends her days sleepwalking through her job at a gas station. At nights in her dingy apartment she writes songs that reflect her anger with what she feels is the increasingly robotic nature of the human experience. Although fame is the last thing on her mind, her songs have a strange resonance that seem to perfect capture the cultural zeitgeist.
Enter Danny (Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia fame), a small-time promoter who squeaks out a living by helping record companies fix the music charts, buying up all the copies of certain singles in local stores. When he encounters Kate, he is immediately stricken by her musical abilities and her unique sense of personal style. (Bizarre Kabuki-style makeup and thrown-together outfits are clearly the hallmark of an individual who cares more about fixing social ills than dressing to conform). Although he is small potatoes industry-wise, Danny realizes that beneath her shell Kate has true talent and originality. They form a friendship and Danny helps Kate audition band members for a new group named Breaking Glass.
After a rather disastrous premiere performance, Danny blackmails his record label contacts into attending a high-profile London concert he has arranged, the band’s big break is seemingly cut short when a power outage occurs during their set. Undeterred, Kate continues singing her disgust with the authority anthem "Who Needs It" without the aid of electricity. The power of her performance wins over the rowdy crowd and the industry execs, earning the band a record contract. They quickly discover that the labels are more interested in commodity than creativity (one weaseley exec suggests Kate remove the word "arse" from her song "Big Brother" in order to make it more radio-friendly). Meanwhile, forces within the band and from the label begin moving against Danny, who at this point has become the group’s biggest advocate/fan.
As the label schemes to make Kate the focus of the group and diminish her musical cohorts’ role to that of glorified session musicians, conflicts come to a head. Danny reaches his boiling point and quits. This paves the way for Woods (Jon Finch) – a sleazy, successful record producer – to take over his position...both personally and professionally. Woods doesn’t get the Kate that Danny fell in love with, but instead a shell of her former self that is slowly sinking into madness.
Manipulated by everyone around her, an addled Kate does a radio show appearance in which she (awesomely) rambles about robots taking over before Danny calls in to accuse of her selling out. She denies it, but viewers know better as they have already heard the edited version of "Big Brother" the record company wanted playing over the airwaves.
Worn out and wanting nothing more than to leave the spotlight, Kate refuses to play a sold-out show. After being forcibly drugged, she takes the stage in a futuristic day-glo outfit that clearly influenced – or, if you prefer, was ripped off by – the producers of Tron. She begins singing "Eighth Day," a song about how mankind’s love for technology ultimately results in machines becoming self-aware and turning against humanity. (So the argument can made of how the flick influenced The Terminator too). During the course of the movie, Kate often refers to her fear of an Orwellian future. Bathed in lasers and blue light, it appears that her worst nightmares have come true – she has lost all semblance of her humanity.
At this point the US version of the film ends; effective to be sure, but lacking the closure of the original UK cut where Kate retreats from the stage and heads to an underground train in a sequence that echoes the film’s "Writing on the Wall" opening. On the verge of madness, she begins having visions of the people she has alienated as well as an array of Kate clones who have perfectly replicated what used to be her look. (Completing the sci-fi influence hat trick, many of these Kates have similar makeup to that worn by Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner). In this dreamlike sequence, it’s not sure what Kate is seeing and what she is imagining but what is certain is that her mind is collapsing in on itself. In the movie’s final scene, Kate is shown recovering in a mental institution. Danny arrives with a portable keyboard, suggesting that maybe their relationship and her career can get back on track.
Much like Fame and Once, Breaking Glass is a naturalistic musical in which the "inspired by punk" songs are just as much a part of the story as the dialogue. Each of the songs were written and performed by Hazel O’Connor, who delivers a performance that should have made her an international star. Instead, she has been relegated to a steady career as an under-the-radar actress, musician and cult figure – not a bad way to make a living, but one that doesn’t allow her numerous talents to reach the masses as they should.
Until recently, this film was incredibly difficult to get a hold of. The UK DVD was issued briefly before going out of print, and if it weren’t for frequent airings during the Night Flight anthology series in the 1980s, it would probably be completely unknown in the United States. Despite being extremely obscure, its massive impact on contemporary pop culture is evident. Along with the aforementioned sci-fi films that have taken a cue from the movie’s dystopian warnings, the style of Lady Gaga is unmistakably Kate-esque. Fortunately, the tide is turning and word is finally getting out. Thanks to the wonders of Netflix streaming and a domestic DVD release from Olive Films, Breaking Glass finally seems poised to get the attention it so desperately deserves. If you have a fondness for the post-punk era or just a love for cautionary tales, be sure to check it out and be prepared for an experience that is, as the tagline promises, truly shattering.