‘My Old School’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Alan Cumming plays a key role in this unconventional documentary about a Scotsman who pretended to be someone he wasn’t back in the 1990s, a first feature for Jono McLeod.

Debuting feature director Jono McLeod’s documentary My Old School offers a deliciously compelling look back in bemusement at the story around Brandon Lee, a young man with whom McLeod himself went to school — at Bearsden Academy, a much sought-out secondary school in a posh suburb of Glasgow, Scotland — in 1993. Lee turned out, to put it mildly, to be not exactly who he said he was. So there’s a poetic justice to having him “played” onscreen by Scottish actor-writer-singer Alan Cumming who lip-syncs immaculately to audio recordings of the real Lee.

It’s a wacky, rarely used technique, notably deployed in Clio Bernard’s equally off-kilter doc The Arbor. Here it makes sense in a story about performance and deception. Simply designed animation, modeled on the look of cool cartoons of the time such as Daria, adds an extra comic jauntiness. You could say, to use a popular slang term from the 90s, this puts the “mental” back in experimental, but in a good way.

My Old School

The Bottom Line

This fascinating story about a fraud is the real thing.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Alan Cumming, Clare Grogan, Lulu
Director: Jono McLeod

1 hour 45 minutes

These quirky comic devices also help to vary the texture throughout given that the story is essentially told through interviews with other classmates from the same year and the few teachers who remember what happened. We’ll be coy about what happened in the end so as to not spoil the fun, even though the story can easily be found on the net. It created quite the mini news-media scandal back in the 90s when Lee’s true identity broke.

Suffice to say, that on the first day of class in 1993, the kids in Year 5 (the equivalent of junior year in American high-school terms) were surprised to see a new boy joining them who looked odd somehow, as if something was off about his face or he was older than the other kids. He introduced himself as Brandon Lee, a name that seemed familiar to many kids as it was the same as the star of The Crow — the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee — who had recently been killed by a stray bullet on set.

This Brandon had a strong Canadian accent, and gradually everyone learned about how his parents were divorced and his father worked in the diplomatic service down in London. Like something out of a Victorian novel, Brandon’s mother had been an opera singer tragically killed in a car accident. Brandon had come to live with his grandmother in Glasgow, in public housing on one of the shabbier streets of Bearsden, a hood otherwise known as the area where Glasgow’s professional elite lived.

Although shy at first, Brandon soon emerged as an academic star, especially in biology, which was handy as he wanted to study medicine at the University of Dundee next. While sitting at poky desks in contemporary classrooms, the Bearsden alumni interviewed here recall how once they got to know Brandon he proved to be a good friend, wise beyond his years. Stefen, one of the only Black pupils in the school, was frequently bullied and subjected to racist abuse but started to feel more confident and accepted after “all-round nice guy” Brandon befriended him. Another boy, Brian MacKinnon, who would play an odd role in the story when the truth came out years later, explains how Brandon took him under his wing as well. Brandon turned him and his friend Donal on to all sorts of cool punk and new-wave bands like Joy Division, Television and Husker Du from a few years back, a sequence shown in animation and nippily cut to Bearsden band Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up,” an immortal twangy pop banger from 1982.

While the interviewees seen on camera speak for themselves while the animation illustrates their narratives, characters in the story who are now dead or didn’t want to participate are either seen in archive footage or voiced in the cartoon sequences by actors. The voice cast includes Clare Grogan (a teen pop idol herself once and star of Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl) and mono-named pop star Lulu, who voices the fierce deputy head of school. (She also contributes a rousey cover of Steely Dan’s song “My Old School,” played over the end credits.) Such casting again underscores the importance of music to the story, not just in terms of the tunes the kids listen to in their bedrooms but also a key moment in the story when Brandon gets cast as the lead in the school production of South Pacific, above all because he already had a North American accent.

Some of the interviewees misremember him as singing really well, and to bolster that impression we hear the showstopper “Younger Than Springtime” sung by Cumming himself over the cartoon sequence. It turns out that Brandon’s real singing voice in the show, revealed in a video recording shot at the time, was nowhere near as good as Cumming’s (the actor won a Tony for playing the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway revival of Cabaret). But this only ties into the film’s thematic thread about the slipperiness of memory and how charismatic people can almost hypnotize us into not believing the evidence of our eyes.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Alan Cumming, Clare Grogan, Lulu
Production companies: Hopscotch Films, Creative Scotland
Director: Jono McLeod
Producers: John Archer, Olivia Lichtenstein
Executive producers: Mark Thomas, Jono McLeod, Clara Glynn
Director of photography: George Geddes
Editor: Berny McGurk, Jono McLeod
Music: Shelly Poole
Music supervisor: Gemma Dempsey
Animation director: Rory Lowe
Lead animator: Scott Morriss
Sales: Dogwoof

1 hour 45 minutes