This sounds completely insane, and it is, but that insanity is put to good use. Jubilee satirizes British power structures and cultural hierarchies (the media, the aristocracy, the military, the police) and operates as a tribute to the underground and anti-establishment nature of punk rock and of the oppressed minorities who contribute to the genre. More than anything, it captures the essence of this lifestyle, featuring a few of its actual members (including Jayne County, the first of rock's transgender singers). It's gorgeous, but the movement doesn't get off without Jarman pointing out their own racial ignorances and the hypocrisy of those who eventually sign on to major labels to the tune of millions while simultaneously decrying the wealthy and powerful.
I didn't watch this immediately after Haynes' Velvet Goldmine (another look at one of Britain's outsider-turned-mainstream rock genres) knowing that they'd be so similar, and while it pains me to compare two visionaries with such distinct concepts of their respective subjects, I have to say that Jarman's depiction is ultimately the better film. It captures the spirit of the punk lifestyle without stylish camera tricks, without a big budget (Jarman apparently had to starve himself to get this thing finished), and without sacrificing a tight narrative for the sake of visual ambition.
Intriguing without being compelling, Jubilee showcases derelict England and punk culture. It's best viewed as a sequence of vignettes, linked by recurring characters. Attempting to find a typical plot arc will yield disappointment.
It's a film that holds the viewer at arm's length, yet still manages to reveal a variety of interesting characters. The scenarios aren't too interesting by themselves, but become relatively engaging by the way characters interact.
It's still a film you have to work to like, but some excellent musical showcases do a good job of helping to smooth the ride.
With its day-glo characters and derelict locations, the film isn't out to create a realistic, metropolitan environment -- often, the actors just recite history or philosophy for the camera and serve as conduits for Jarman's thoughts. What passes for "plot" is strictly secondary, as various play-like vignettes are spliced together in collage. The motley cast includes the adolescent Toyah Willcox (relentlessly obnoxious and barely recognizable), the pre-fame Adam Ant, Little Nell (yes, from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"), Ian Charleson (half the film passed before I realized he starred in "Chariots of Fire" just a few years later) and Jenny Runacre (the group's aloof, glamorous matriarch). Willcox, Wayne County, Adam & the Ants (minus their later New Romantic frills) and Siouxsie & the Banshees are among the onscreen musical contributors, while Brian Eno adds ambient score. The Slits also make a quick cameo. Yet the centerpiece tune comes from a novice: the one-named Jordan (known here as "Amyl Nitrate"), who struts through sort of an operatic, reggae version of "Rule Brittania."
The abusive Willcox has the juiciest part, but the most coherent plot thread is the stardom quest of a handsome ingenue (Ant) and his subsequent exploitation by a leering media impresario (the ridiculously overacting "Orlando"). Elsewhere, the sociopathic Nell, Willcox and Runacre collaborate on a few thrill killings, while the depraved proceedings are coolly observed by a time-traveling Queen Elizabeth I (Runacre again), her court astrologer (Richard O'Brien, also from "Rocky Horror") and the spooky, dark-eyed angel they have summoned as a guide. This trio functions as a narrative frame and one suspects that, given a choice, Jarman would rather live in their past era of magic and elegant costumes.
Many British youths disliked "Jubilee" (punk-fashion icon Vivienne Westwood even ran off a notorious T-shirt decorated with a letter of protest) and it's easy to see why true rockers would prefer a grittier, grubbier work like, say, "Rude Boy." But "Jubilee" remains an intriguing curio that underground-music fans shouldn't miss.