Saturday, July 31, 2004

Glitter (2001)

Me and Mariah go back like babies and pacifiers

If Purple Rain showed us how to do it right, Mariah Carey's bomb Glitter is a clinical in how to screw everything up. This movie is spectacularly terrible, and I know because I've seen it twice! The first was voluntary (for this project) and the second was in a hotel when there was nothing else on. It would be much too easy to gleefully rip into this film, but I'd like to avoid that temptation. Okay, so I'll do a little ripping, but I'm going to use the platform to talk a bit of theory. First…

What Happens:

We start with a flashback wherein Mariah's mom is singing in a bar, and calls her young daughter up on stage to display some impressive pipes. You hope she learns that if she hangs out in smoky bars for much longer she'll sound more like Joe Cocker than Whitney Houston. This scene feels kind of like a VH1 Divas Live special. Oh, then we learn that her white father wants nothing to do with her.

Credits rolling around this point reveal Mariah as the "executive movie producer." This can mean nothing but trouble.

Mariah's mother gives her up, and she goes to an orphanage where she meets a sassy Hispanic friend AND a sassy black friend. Kudos to this movie for avoiding the temptation of having only one broad racial stereotype. Then, all of the sudden it's the early '80s and the three friends are hanging in a trendy club. They get involved with a guy who wants them to be back up singers for a (surprise!) bitchy Appolonia-esque woman who can't carry a tune. The producer takes Mariah's part, substitutes the vocals for the bitch. And you thought that kind of thing didn't start happening till the late '80s and early '90s (sorry Milli Vanilli and C & C Music Factory fans)!

The song becomes a hit, Mariah is discovered by a creepy, creepy DJ named Dice, and played by an actor who is honestly a poor man's version of Donnie Wahlberg. Not even Marky Mark. Donnie. He is apparently a musical genius and decides to mold Mariah's career. Also, they fall in love! Tommy Mottola, are you watching?

Under Dice's tutelage, Mariah gets sort of popular. We never really see how popular, but apparently enough for Dice to afford a diamond encrusted bling bling necklace spelling out his name (and you thought the Cash Money Millionaires came up with that one!) which he wears throughout the rest of the film. You get the idea that it cost a lot to make and the filmmakers wanted to get their money's worth.

Blah blah blah, they move in together, Mariah makes a video (get this, they want her to show clevage...Mariah would never do that!), the record company becomes dissatisfied with the dance direction of her music, so she is forced to drop Dice as a svengali. They stay together as a couple for awhile, but she gets even more popular (I think), and then they break up. Apparently in this time she gets so popular she can sell out Madison Square Garden, though the film shows no real evidence of this.

Meanwhile Dice is in trouble after consistently mishandling a money situation with Mariah's old producer. The producer kills him (more on that below). Mariah hears the news right before the MSG concert, goes out to perform anyway, and sings a song that has absolutely no emotional resonance at all. Then she goes and finds her mother somewhere in the suburban countryside. Roll credits.

What Really Happens:

Okay, here's the theory stuff I promised. First, I want to talk about formula. Glitter is odd in that rather than sticking to one formula, it dabbles in a couple without ever really committing. First you have the A Star Is Born formula, in which a woman with talent hooks up with a man who can get her places, she gets to those places, gets too big for her britches and he can't handle her fame, so they break up. Later she comes to her senses, they reconcile and she makes a triumphant return to public adoration. Second you have the Purple Rain formula, in which a mostly good character is pinballed around by outside forces before ultimately triumphing over them.

Glitter mostly sticks to the former formula, with a few unwelcome twists, but neglects to add the "too big for her britches" part, thus negating any impact of the conclusion. Mariah wanders through this film as though she's eternally mystified by everything that's happening. It's not that she's a bad actress as much as it's the fact that she doesn't even try.

There are also some disturbing similarities to the Britney Spears film Crossroads, including a "three friends and a flashback" beginning, and a scene wherein two romantically involved people write poetry and perform it at a piano.

The other bit of theory I'd like to discuss concerns character development. Given the ending of the film, I'm assuming we were supposed to like Dice as a character. FORGET IT! It's not only his poor acting (with a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes as it pleases) or his constant shirtlessness that cause annoyance. He is badly written, bottom line. In fact, at one hour and 17 minutes in, right after he and Mariah have attended some type of awards show (and he has already been removed as her producer), he bitches out Mariah and calls her friends slutty and fat respectively.

At some later point, in the scene that leads to his death, he beats the stuffing out of Mariah's former producer, and then goes to jail for it.

When the producer came back at the end of the film and shot Dice, I cheered. I actually CHEERED for the death of a character who wasn't supposed to be a villain! The movie gave the character zero redemptive quality and then asked us to feel sad when Mariah sings a song for him? NO WAY! Bad, bad character development.

Questions and Comments:

What's with the odd camera movements throughout? Did Paul Thomas Anderson direct this under an assumed name? Or was it Paul Thomas Anderson's less talented brother?

There's this cat that appears sporadically in the movie, usually at points where Mariah is traumatically leaving. Other times we see no evidence of it. Watch for this!

Mariah's eyebrows are consistently distracting.

Da Brat displays baffling dance moves nearly every time she's on camera.

Eric Benet (the former Mr. Halle Berry) also appears, but really is a pointless character. He plays a musician who Mariah works with after ditching Dice. It seems like he and Mariah will either fall in love, or he will double cross her. Neither happens.

Why wasn't there more focus on the music? There are several Mariah songs in this film but never are they brought front and center. Oh, except right after Mariah and Dice have sex for the first time a Mariah song plays over the pillow talk. Is it me, or is that creepy?

In Conclusion:

Besides Mariah's music, The Message is played about 5 times in this movie. So at least Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five made some money off of this thing; in the face of such hideousness, you MUST find a bright side.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Purple Rain (1984)

Baby, I'm a star

One of many astonishing things about Purple Rain is that, yes, Prince was pretty well known at the time - he'd made five albums and had a couple of pretty big hits, including Little Red Corvette and 1999 - but rather than simply cashing in on a star that had already reached the apex of his popularity (like most pop music movies) Purple Rain vaulted Prince into a realm of popularity and renown that even most best-selling popular musicians never reach.

How did this happen?

I hesitate to declare this movie a masterpiece, but it is the modern-day blueprint for a pop star movie vehicle. It does so many things right, and features so many great moments and songs and performances that to regard it as anything but the prototypical rock star movie would be to terribly undervalue it.

What Happens:

The Kid (played by Prince of course) has a band, The Revolution. They play every night at a Minneapolis club called First Avenue, but they have competition in the form of a stylish band called The Time, led by the egocentric Morris Day. Both bands fight over an audience, but the Revolution is falling behind, and the Kid's aloofness to both his band members and the club owner is not helping matters.

Maybe the Kid is distracted by his rough home life, where his father and mother oscillate between fistfights and lovefests. Though his father is abusive, the Kid obviously admires him, and sees reflections of himself. Unfortunately, his dad is a failed musician, sabotaged by his own desire for control.

Meanwhile, the mysterious, sexy, and cape-wearing Apollonia has arrived in town intent on becoming a star. The Kid notices her. So does Morris. Thus begins a battle for her heart, a battle to gain a following, and the discovery of a path to artistic transcendence.

What Really Happens:

From the very beginning of this film, you know you're in for a treat. As the Warner Bros. logo appears we hear a voice say "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Revolution…" and then the opening organ lick of Let's Go Crazy comes on and the ride begins!

The very first thing worthy of mention is the abundance of performance scenes, with the Revolution just kicking it on stage. This is what every rock star movie needs to have, and yet way too many cut corners out of fear that it will bore the audience. This is a legitimate concern. If the songs or performers aren't going to be able to pull it off, you've got to cut your losses. Purple Rain's advantage here is twofold:

1) The band was tight and visually interesting (I mean, what a strange band… you've got a guy who dresses like a doctor, a hot lesbian duo on keys and guitar, and an androgynous leader, all dressed in shiny variations of stripes and paisley, and they were inter-gender and inter-racial!). The show was choreographed, but didn't look it. My former boss is a lifelong Minneapolean and was around in the heyday of Prince. She had seen him at First Ave. soon before the movie came out and was very excited by the stage show…the way Prince moved and interacted with the Revolution. She claims that when she saw Purple Rain she was disappointed because it was all the same stuff. Frankly, I think she's a little nuts, in no way should familiarity diminish the greatness of the performances.

2) The songs had emotional resonance within the context of the film's events (it helped that Prince wrote the songs specifically for the movie). There are several examples of this. When Apollonia is courted by Morris in plain sight of the Kid, he leads the band into a gut-wrenching version of The Beautiful Ones that culminates with the line "Do you want him (point to Morris) or do you want me (points to self), 'cause I want you! (points to Apollonia)." You can tell by the look on the characters' faces that this isn't just a song, it's a message.

Speaking of that, there are a couple of moments where the reaction to the song is curious. For example, after Apollonia has decided to join Morris' girl group, and the Kid is pissed at her, he tries to get her goat by performing Darling Nikki replete with gyrations on top of the speakers. It works, and she storms out of the place. But why? Is she upset by the insinuation that the Kid has had sex with other women? Is she secretly conservative, like Tipper Gore?

Even given this misstep, the movie does very well with the songs, and that is a make-or-break proposition when it comes to a rock star movie. It wasn't until my third viewing of the movie that I noticed that in one of their fights, the Kid's father says "I would die for you" to the mother. Of course it shows up as a song…brilliant.

On the topic of sex: Purple Rain broke the barrier on it (and 8 Mile took to the bank). Previous rock star movies didn't have much to work with in terms of the sex, drugs, and foul language that are the trademarks of youthful rebellion. They were trying to achieve a rating that would allow the younger audience in, but to do so they had to sanitize and risk losing the very youth it wanted to attract. Purple Rain says "fuck it" (literally) and goes for the R rating with generous profanity and a couple of steamy, nudity-included sex scenes.

For the most part, the acting in this movie is very engaging, which is not always something you expect in a rock star movie. Prince is a good actor…that's evident here and in his other movies. You get the feeling that if his look wasn't so iconic (i.e. people wouldn't see him and immediately say "There's Prince"), he could have easily been a movie star for years. He shows flashes of the comedic ability that would blossom in Under the Cherry Moon (shown here when interacting with Apollonia in the Take Me With U scene and doing some ventriloquism before a show). But mostly he's brooding and serious.

So to take the edge and burden off, we've got Morris and Jerome, who are just damn funny, even as villains. I love that in the first glimpse we get of Morris he's vacuuming. And I know the "what is the password" scene is a ripoff of the classic Who's On First bit, but it still shows great comic timing. I also like that their relationship dynamic seems to be based on that of James Brown and the guy who keeps putting the cape back on him.

So there's the blueprint…we've got lots of great performances of songs that have resonance in the film itself, we've got sex and profanity, and we've got good acting. Other, smaller things help make this film the blueprint, but these are the ones that really matter.

Questions and Comments:

How does the Kid afford his dope purple motorcycle? Sure he lives in his parents' basement and therefore doesn't pay rent, and he has a regular gig. But you'd think all of that money would go into clothes, equipment, paying the band members, etc. I guess its best just not to think about movie characters' finances.

How does the band play Purple Rain so flawlessly without any practice? Of course the Kid, Wendy, and Lisa all know it, but how are the others keeping up with the changes? Are they just that good? At any rate, this song is just a knockout, especially the way it's presented. The lyrics are meant to be regretful but redemptive, addressing his father. Even the performance of the song is healing, because it represents the sort of surrender of control that the Kid has been fighting against (Wendy and Lisa wrote the instrumental part and have presented it to the Kid, but he is resistant to material other than his; but you can tell he's haunted by the melody throughout the film, because he keeps playing the tape).

Is it just me, or does Baby I'm a Star feel tacked on? Of course Purple Rain is the emotional musical climax, and I Would Die 4 U has to be there to stoke the fire and end on an up note, but "baby, I'm a star"? No, you're not. Not yet. Prince is, but the Kid isn't, and the denouement doesn't need to be this long. It's almost as if they knew they needed one more song for the album, so they threw this in there.

The iconic final shot, with Prince frozen in triumph and the lights shining behind him, is another part of the blueprint. A shocking number of rock star movies attempt to duplicate this!

Why didn't Apollonia 6 become the new Supremes? This is a joke.

The theatrical trailer included on the no-frills DVD has no less than three moments that hint at deleted scenes. I'm intrigued by trailers, and love to imagine seeing this as a preview back in the day and wondering if I would have gotten hyped for it. Anyway, the scenes we see are 1) Morris being harassed by the cops as he talks to Billy the club owner, 2) the Kid's dad interrupting a rehearsal and the Kid punching him (!), and 3) Morris sneaking around the Kid's house. As exciting as this discovery is, I'm very torn when it comes to deleted scenes on DVDs. Certain movies have become so familiar that the idea of there being more that we haven't seen is like discovering additional chapters to the Bible, or a hidden room in the house you've lived in for 20 years. Just the thought that there are deleted scenes to The Karate Kid sends my head spinning because the film seems so perfect as is. But in the case of a movie like Say Anything, watching the deleted scenes felt sort of dirty, like I was never meant to see them. The only one in Purple Rain that might be of substance is the father visit, which I am clamoring to see. Come on Warner Bros., where's that collector's edition?!

In Conclusion:

The world of pop music movies would be much less interesting without Purple Rain.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

"Ladies and Gentlemen..."

It's a poorly hidden fact that I am possessed of an addictive personality.  Indeed, as I reflect back on my life thus far, it can be fairly accurately described as a series of obsessions supplanting obsessions.  This affects nearly every aspect of my life, but settles most heavily on romance and entertainment.  For brevity's sake I won't get into the former, but the latter is where the following project stems out of. 

In no way do I consider it odd to have a series of entertainment obsessions.  Most people in American and British culture have experienced some form of this in their lives.  Mine have been fairly typical: toys, cartoons, comic books, and music, with movies running constant throughout.  But there are levels of obsession, and I think that I'm up there near the top.  From the start, I was into collections: stuffed animals, baseball cards, 32 oz. plastic cups, bottle caps, McDonalds Happy Meal toys, comic books again, and now music.

The exciting - and sometimes frustrating - part of being a music fan is that just having the CD is rarely enough.  The real fan wants every bit of ephemera he or she can get their hands on: books, import singles, posters, t-shirts, stickers, bath soap.  The fan that is really lucky is into an artist with such mass appeal that the Hollywood powers that be decide to give them their own movie.  A movie, starring the musician, with music by the musician, and somewhat based on that musician's own life experience.   Could there be a project more ego-based than this?  Could there be a project any more likely to fulfill a fan's obsessions?

So this is where I come in.  One fateful day, after partaking of Prince's baffling 1991 film Graffiti Bridge, I felt the need to put my confusion and bewilderment to paper.  From there, of course, compulsion took hold, and I decided that it would be a worthwhile venture to watch as many music-related films as possible, and to write about each and every one.

It took some research and whittling to get a suitable list.  I work off the criteria bolded above for the majority of the films.  However, the biographical ego-project may be the most compelling of all forms of music movies, but it is not the only one.  I will also be dabbling in other categories, including concert films, documentaries, regular movies starring musicians, biopics starring other actors or musicians, and films about fictional bands or musicians. 

I plan to publish one new review per week until I run out of them.  The first review will be up very soon, and the title of this post is a clue as to what that film might be.  Any guesses?

As you'll see, the field of music movies is full of land mines.   Allow me to be your guide.