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My Old School review: this head-spinning doco is a must-see

Featuring a lip-synching performance by Scottish star Alan Cumming, My Old School asks if we can really trust our memories.

‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’

So said the inimitable theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. Or did he? It may well be an apocryphal statement, but as with most things on the internet these days, it’s extremely hard to get to the bottom of the line’s authenticity. Somebody said it, but just who may be lost to time and tall tales. But, as another (possibly?) apocryphal line from great American author Mark Twain goes, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’.

Which brings us neatly to the absolute madness of My Old School, an equal parts head-scratchingly hilarious and darkly tragic mystery recalling a very tall tale indeed that set Scotland’s nightly news alight in 1995. Unless you were in Glasgow or surrounds at the time and can’t help but recall how the Brandon Lee scandal plays out, it’s best you hit go on this bizarro gem streaming at DocPlay knowing as little as humanly possible.

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Nothing is quite what it seems in writer/director Jono McLeod’s wild ride. There’s a breaking of the fourth wall from the outset, as a scene-marking clapper and a mic boom intrude in an old-school classroom with a chalked-up blackboard and scratched wooden desks. What we don’t see, initially, is the face of purported interviewee Brandon Lee (more on that suspicion-inducing name later). For all their historical infamy, they were not willing to be interviewed on camera, only granting an audio chat to McLeod.

Perhaps Scotland’s most impish fun export, Alan Cumming steps in to perform Lee’s absentee role in a close cousin of a lip-synching drag show, only what plays out here gets much wilder than the usual RuPaul’s Drag Race episode. Funnily enough, Cumming was attached to play Lee in a dramatic re-telling around the time the story broke, but that proposed film fell apart before it went anywhere, so there’s a sense of destiny that he gets to play the man after all.

WTF?

‘When you have an adversary, the thing you have to do, if you really want to prevail, is do the unimaginable, do something that is just so out there that no one is even going to dream that you would think of doing that,’ Cumming-Lee says in the opening moments of My Old School. While it’s typically grandiose banter from the unseen man, he’s not wrong about no one being able to dream up his demented plan.

The basics are unveiled in the out-there news story (don’t look), the trailer and the opening act. So it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the basic gist is that Lee, a man in his thirties, went back to his old high school, Bearsden Academy, a once-glorious school in a v posh part of Glasgow (yes, they exist) that’s seen better days, under the pretence of being a much younger man, for reasons.

Read: Alan Cumming in Australia: ‘I’m quite a mess, and I think that’s why people like me’

More than a few students noted his unusually careworn face. ‘There was a guy who looked about 40,’ says one of his former classmates on his appearance in class, while another wonders why this person, who appears to be a student teacher, is sitting with them, rather than standing up the front.

What makes the unpicking of exactly where this wild ride goes from here magnificent is the beautifully frank banter of a pure gallus* Greek chorus comprised of Lee’s former classmates, whose direct-to-camera recollections are guaranteed to crack you up.

One recalls immediately being suss about the name Brandon Lee, given that the scion of martial arts movie star Bruce had only just died, tragically, in a fatal accident on the set of Australian director Alex Proyas’s gothic classic The Crow, which most teenagers of the time would know. The real-deal Lee appears, briefly, in an archival interview, asking, ‘How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, and yet it all seems limitless?’

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It’s fair to say Cumming-Lee will have a bit to say on this topic in My Old School. It thoroughly prosecutes the line between fact, fiction and self-delusion, most notably in a subplot about an end-of-year staging of the musical South Pacific and the ethics of him having kissed his 16-year-old co-star. The moment she finally rewatches what she remembers as a chaste peck on the cheek is the documentary’s most powerful moment in a film that lands plenty of WTF punches.

Well, you make me wanna shout …

An exceedingly animated tale, My Old School is bolstered by brilliantly drawn, Darla-like cartoon sequences that allow us to jump back in time seamlessly while also deploying the considerable vocal talents of pop star Lulu as a particularly nose-pinched and pursed-lipped teacher.

My Old School. Image: Creative Scotland/ Hopscotch Films.

Moving backwards and forwards along this increasingly complex timeline is, on its surface, rife with comedic value. But as with the South Pacific imbroglio, what’s funny at first can suddenly pivot to deeply troubling. And at its heart, we have a two-faced figure whose mental health, and that of his equally unusual guardian, are complicated.

The beauty of McLeod’s jaw-dropping doco, beyond the very Glaswegian humour of Lee’s classmates, is that it allows us just enough sympathy for the devil. In questioning the detail, you’ll ponder the aftermath of this tallest of tales for quite some time. As Lulu once sang, ‘Oh me, oh my, I’m a fool for you baby’.

*Glasgow slang for brilliant, bold, daring.

My Old School is streaming on DocPlay from 23 March 2023.

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4.5 out of 5 stars

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