September 1982: Hit rock ‘n’ roll singer Shakin’ Stevens can’t make his scheduled appearance on BBC chart show Top of the Pops. Panicked producers make the life-changing decision to fill the gap left by Shaky with an unknown pop group by the name of Culture Club. Minutes after the band’s debut television appearance on the show, phones start ringing at the BBC switchboard asking What the hell did we just watch?. Next day, newspapers run similar stories filled with offensive mock outrage questions: “Who is Boy George?” “Is he a boy or a girl?” Within weeks, Culture Club was number one and Boy George was the nation’s sweetheart.
But how did it come to this? Where did Boy George come from? What shaped the life of this brilliant, iconic “gender-bending” singer?
Well, these are some of the many questions answered by the lad himself as Boy George aka George O’Dowd takes the viewer on a very personal pop culture trip through the decade that shaped him—the 1970s.
The seventies are all too often dismissed by the more, shall we say, snobbish cultural critic as “the decade that fashion forgot,” ridiculed for its supposedly bad taste in fashion, politics, sex, music and hair. Yet for Boy George, the seventies was a “glorious decade…all about Bowie, Bolan, dressing up and going out.” The “last bonkers decade,” when the young teenage George discovered all these “amazing things… punk rock, electro music, fashion, all of that.”
Of course, there was the downside to all of this heady excitement: the political crisis, the three-day working weeks, the strikes, power cuts, mass unemployment, grim poverty, and racism. But George was too young to know much about any of this. He was too busy finding out about music and glamor and miming to Shirley Bassey in his parent’s front room. He was about to hit puberty. He felt different from the other kids and was looking for a sign that he was not alone in this gray suburban south London landscape.
Then came the sign he’d been hoping for: the day he saw David Bowie performing on Top of the Pops in 1972. That’s when George knew he wasn’t alone. The androgynous Bowie in his fire-red hair, make-up, and jumpsuit with his nail polished hand slung defiantly over Mick Ronson’s shoulder as they sang “Starman.” This was a sign that life could be extraordinary and was just an adventure to be gained.
Save Me from Suburbia is more than just Boy George telling his life story, it is an essential history of the events and pop culture that shaped a nation during ten heady years from skinheads and strikes to punk and Margaret Thatcher. George takes us on an utterly fascinating tour through the decade with a little help from his friends and accomplices like Rusty Egan, Princess Julia, Martin Degville (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), Andy Polaris (Animal Nightlife), and Caryn Franklin—and most revealingly his mother. When all dressed up with Boy George as a perfect host, Save Me from Suburbia is a delight of a documentary and a superb portrait of a revolutionary decade.