I do not write often about music, and I think that’s because my feelings about music are even more personal than my feelings about movies. I love movies in general, and I am happy to discuss good films, bad films, what I love, what I hate, and all of it seems to me to be part of one great big larger conversation about film as art. With music, I have very little patience for the things I don’t like, and I can honestly say there’s no way I could face a lifetime of writing about music I don’t like and artists whose work means nothing to me. I will sit through almost any movie and give it a chance, but ten seconds of a song I dislike is enough to get me to change a radio station or turn something off.
The music I love comes to me mainly from friends I trust because I listen to so little radio at this point. I don’t spend any real time listening to mainstream pop because it just doesn’t speak to me. It’s not for me. I don’t begrudge anyone else the things they like, but I have no interest in 90% of it. I am aware of pop stars because of their omnipresence in the media, but knowing who someone is doesn’t mean I have any real idea about what it is they do. For example, I am aware of Katy Perry because she has had such a high media profile and because she’s an attractive woman. I know she had a brief marriage to Russell Brand. I know filmmakers seem to like to use her music, and her song “Firework” is used to truly moving effect in this year’s “Rust and Bone.” But I can’t honestly say I’ve ever spent any time tracking her work down or listening to it beyond casual exposure.
As a result, I walked into “Katy Perry: Part Of Me” about as blank a slate as possible. Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz were part of last year’s Paramount musicumentary, “Justin Bieber Never Say Never,” and it’s little wonder Paramount would trust them this time out. I reviewed the Bieber film, and I liked it as an overt piece of mythmaking. It’s a canny movie that sells a carefully crafted image at a key moment in his ascent. I’m sure that when they started work on this film, it was meant to be the same sort of thing. Katy Perry was about to embark on a huge tour, an international trek that was a sort of victory lap to celebrate the mammoth success of her second album. Mid-tour, she broke a record and became the first woman to ever have five #1 singles off the same album. By all rights, what they expected to get was a picture of a woman having the best moment of her life after a long slow series of low-key near misses. More pop idol mythmaking, right?
One of the key ingredients in that fairy tale was, of course, her celebrity marriage to Russell Brand. Or her marriage to celebrity Russell Brand. Or her celebrity and her marriage to Russell Brand. However you want to view it, there’s a sense at the start of the film of Brand as a sort of edge-of-frame presence. He darts in and out of the frame a few times. They talk about him as a part of her schedule, as something she leaves to go do during breaks on the tour. And for much of the film, it’s just a sort of low-grade hum in the background. It’s obvious watching the inner circle of advisors around her, like her sister and her manager and her make-up guy and her wardrobe designer and her assistant, that they’re concerned about the time she’s taking and the travel and the wear and tear on her during what should be rest periods built into the tour, but they know they can’t stop her, and that they shouldn’t. It’s this tension that sort of builds at the edge of things because, of course, we know the end of the story already, whether we want to or not.
It really does bother me that I know intimate details about people that I have no reason to know. Our “TMZ” culture forces it down your throat. You absorb it by osmosis. So of course, I know that Brand and Perry divorced, and I expected that the film would find a tasteful way to handle it. Instead, the film captures the moment in a very direct way, and when it all finally sort of implodes, it’s during the lead-up to a huge show in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and there’s a long moment where it really doesn’t look like she’s going to be able to go on. When she does finally get up and get moving, it’s rough. And by this point in the film, we’ve seen the start of the show from below the stage about four or five times, where she steps into a little elevator lift thing, wearing this dress with crazy spinning boob propellers, ready to open the show with a bang. Watching the moments as she’s standing there, listening to the single biggest crowd of the tour cheering and going crazy, trying to hold herself together enough to go on, it’s a naked human moment, and I’ve got to give Perry real respect for allowing them to use it in the film. Every moment from that show is a highlight of the film, and it’s a sustained, lovely sequence that may be one of the best practical examples of “the show must go on” that I can remember seeing.
Her pop persona is basically a cheesecake cross between Pee Wee Herman and Willy Wonka. She is an outsized sexual icon, no doubt about it, but watching the segments of her show that are the set pieces in this film, there’s an athletic squeaky clean quality to what she does. Her wardrobe may emphasize curves and skin, but it’s sort of an Esther Williams/Betty Grable sort of revealing. One of the few things of hers I’d ever seen before this film was the performance of “Hot N Cold” that she did for “Sesame Street” that was cut from the show because of her wardrobe. I thought it was an overreaction at the time, and looking at it now, it makes perfect sense for the image that she is selling with the meet-and-greets she does and the videos she makes and the actual numbers in the live show. I still don’t think I’d go buy one of her albums, but I can respect the sheer scale of what she does every night on that stage. The film also does a nice job of conveying how many years of effort went into the “overnight success” that most people know of her work. Like many pop stars, she seemed to simply appear with her first single, “I Kissed A Girl,” fully formed and ready to be a huge sensation. Before that happened, though, there were several years worth of other efforts by Perry and for Perry while she was trying to find her voice, much of it frustrating. And even before that, she had another life as the daughter of fundamentalist traveling preachers, with a successful career in Christian gospel pop. She is very image-aware, and she has fun with the world that she builds to spend night after night in, knowing that she’s got to keep it interesting for herself.
The film also does a good job of showing just how big the support team is for something like Katy Perry in the midst of a world tour. It etches out the way each of these personal relationships developed, what role they’ve played in her success, and just how loyal she seems to be to the people that have been part of her success. There’s a fair amount of footage of her with her friends, including “Raising Hope” star Shannon Woodward, who were part of her life in the years before she was successful, and also we see just how involved her family still is in her life. While it’s easy to look at her early gospel years as something she had to rebel against and imagine that her relationship with her family might be rocky, the film asserts something very different. She seems exceedingly normal, which I’m sure is part of the point of the film, but she has such a genuine presence that it’s hard to imagine it’s just an act.
The film is in 3D, of course, and that’s a cornerstone of the campaign. The documentary material doesn’t really make the sort of use of 3D you’d normally think of, but the concert footage is spectacular. I wrote quite enthusiastically about “U2-3D” when it came out, impressed by what it suggested as the future of concert films, and the way this stuff looks, the way they’ve shot the performances, the immersive close-up look at every detail… it’s amazing. If I were a big fan of Perry’s work, I think I probably would have been beside myself at the way the film puts you right in the middle of these great big elaborate numbers that Perry stages for each song. There’s something to the idea that you should try to document every tour this way, because the intimacy creates a better-than-the-best-seat-in-the-house feeling that is sort of remarkable. Concert films have always offered that option, of course, but it’s never felt quite like you were sitting there onstage in the way that 3D does. When you see how hard Perry works during these shows, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer output of energy on her part.
In addition, even though the Perry film is an Insurge Film, Paramount had a fun little bonus built into the screening I attended. At the beginning of the film, there’s an image of the Paramount logo on a vault door, part of their celebration of their 100th anniversary this year. The vault door swings open, and there’s a fully restored version of “The One What I Want” from “Grease” that plays, with the sing-a-long lyrics floating off the screen in 3D for the audience. It worked immediately on the crowd I saw it with, the entire scene playing out before that vault door swings closed again. If you’re a “Grease” fan and want to see what the proposed 3D re-release might look like, this is it.
If nothing else, parents who have kids who weren’t able to see Perry’s live show should feel comfortable taking them to see this in theaters, and you don’t have to worry about anything wildly inappropriate. There’s a preposterous prop that Perry uses during the end of her show that is unsubtle about being phallic that it’s just silly, but there’s nothing here that felt like it was overtly sexual or adult, something that I think is a fair concern for parents of younger fans. We had some friends over today at the house, friends we’ve known since their daughter was born about a month before Toshi, and sure enough, the daughter is a big Katy Perry fan. Her mom asked me about the appropriateness, and I reassured her. The film is overall about the positive messages that her fans take from her work, with lots of testimonials from younger fans that are quite sweet, and when you see Perry with the kids, many of them sick, who come to meet her backstage at every single show she does, she is well aware of how her interactions with them might affect them. She goes out of her way to be good to them, and it’s one of the many details about her in the film that make her seem so appealing and giving. As I said about the Bieber film, there’s a good chance that much of what you’re seeing is very controlled, very on-message, part of a concentrated effort to sell you a certain narrative.
Even so, there’s something about Perry that seems irrepressible. I think that’s the best word for it. When she teases Lady Gaga in a memorable red carpet encounter, it’s not mean at all. It’s just another perfect example of the real Perry, unmasked, unpolished, laughing at the absurdity of it all. That’s the Perry the film ultimately exposes, and in doing so, they make it hard not to root for her across the board.
“Katy Perry Part Of Me 3D” arrives in theaters July 5, 2012.