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Remembering the brilliance of Derek Jarman's Smiths film 'The Queen is Dead’

As Pride events across the globe come to an end, it seems fitting to have a deeper look at the work of one of the leading activists for HIV and queer rights. Derek Jarman was an all-round artistic genius; from film-making to gardening, painting to writing, he did it all. Jarman reimagined every art form he got his hands on and was one of Britain’s leading post-1945 avant-garde artists. Although he would have hated being put in that category, us mortals must find a way to categorise artists somehow.

Jarman was the first public figure in the UK to come out as HIV positive in 1988 which, at the time, was a huge deal. Jarman was honest about the realities of HIV and proud of his sexual orientation. He continued to be himself even if that meant he would have more hurdles career-wise. It was more important to fight the right-wing homophobes than getting more funding for his films. Jarman since, and prior to his untimely death in 1994, was vocal for the rights and understanding of all things LGBTQ+.

If you don’t remember Jarman because of his activism, you remember him because of his wacky filmography. Not all of his work was loved, but a true artist doesn’t create art for others to admire. Some of Jarman’s best-known works are, Blue (1993), Wittgenstein (1993), The Last of England (1988) and Jubilee (1977); which was recently adapted for the stage in 2017. Even if Jarman’s films weren’t an easy watch, or your cup of tea, you can’t ignore his artistic brilliance.

Jarman worked with several music artists over the years, collaborating with the likes of the Sex Pistols, Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith and Pet Shop Boys, to name a few. But the Smiths were one of his first and most regular collaborators. ‘The Queen is Dead’ is a “Super 8 film triptych” made up of the Smiths hits; ‘The Queen is Dead,’ ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and ‘Panic.’ It’s an amalgamation of recycled images and clips expressing Morrissey’s deep-cutting lyrics and Marr’s hit melodies. Jarman’s film is disorientating and so eighties that today, it could be mistaken as a parody (and I mean this in the most positive way possible). This particular piece of work has fallen off the radar for many when looking back at the great and eclectic range of Jarman’s works, but it definitely deserves a closer look.

Jarman’s fragmented style perfectly suits the cult-classic band The Smiths. All of the footage was shot on film; the Super 8 was notoriously Jarman’s favourite companion. There are multiple accounts talking about his early days and how he would never leave the house without it. You can tell from the first second; there’s an abundance of hand-held camera action of urban scenery. Followed by shots of punk behaviour, alarming figures and costumes, highly contrasted shots of Buckingham Palace, other places around London, the crown—and of course the Queen herself—all giving a nice salute to Morrissey’s anarchistic lyrics. Layers of film overlap, these shots cross over each other… you might not always be sure of what you’re looking at exactly, but you are definitely intrigued. You want to know why he chose each detail and what everything represents.

All of this has happened in just the first five minutes. It’s a piece of visual art, not just a music video. Although each song and section of imagery is completely different, there are still clear themes that run throughout the thirteen-minute film. Shots of flowers, fire and angels; an eighties take on romanticism. It’s thirteen minutes of a decaying Britain, with flashes of beauty and queerness. If you love The Smiths, Derek Jarman, eighties Britain or going through IMBD’s top-rated (it has a rating of 7.4/10), you should give it a watch.

‘The Queen is Dead’ was one of the first “music videos” to break through boundaries and transcend into new territory. One where music and image have a consequential relationship, and artists and art forms can work together to create more than just an MTV hit. Jarman formed visuals that move with the music of The Smiths; a different type of film category altogether. And on the side of being a forward-thinking artist, he achieved plenty for his community through his activism. ‘The Queen is Dead’ is an extravagant and evocative work of art, and you should no-way limit yourself to just watching this piece, you should get lost in a hole of Jarman’s works.