Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Teenage Dream: KATY PERRY: PART OF ME

Katy Perry, the pop star bombshell, has now reached the point in her celebrity ascension to ubiquity that a big screen concert documentary is hardly an unpredictable step. Paramount Pictures has gone all out, hiring the same production companies responsible for their hit Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, a nice-enough piece of commercial fluff from last year, to churn out a relatively low-cost summer tentpole to capitalize on Perry’s very recent success. She’s had insanely catchy number-one-single after insanely catchy number-one-single off of her last album, Teenage Dream. She’s had a high-profile marriage to comedian Russell Brand, followed by an equally high-profile divorce. She’s been on countless talk shows and magazine covers, had flashy performances on award shows where she had lots of nominations and took home some awards. To top it all off, she’s had a lucrative, well-attended worldwide tour. All that and more is contained within the runtime of Katy Perry: Part of Me, which may not be one of the best films of the summer, but is certainly one of the best events.

The documentary marks the feature directorial debut of veteran reality show producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz. They’ve worked together on competition shows like Top Chef and Project Runway and are quite canny in their decision to port over their reality show style of storytelling to the backstage-concert documentary format in order to drive interest. There’s an approach that competition-based reality shows have of quickly sketching in biographies in ways that draw in audience interest and play upon audience sympathies. That happens here to great, calculating effect. Luckily, Perry has an interesting story that Cutforth and Lipsitz can emphasize without stretching too much for good material. Her parents, evangelical ministers, raised their children in a sheltered environment. Perry’s early singing came in church and, later, on a gospel record. Once grown, Perry moved to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big and, after years of struggle, she did.

The film follows her world tour chronologically while cutting between the 3D spectacle of her on-stage production numbers and 2D home-video footage, photographs, and talking heads, mostly her staff and family (I especially liked the brief moments we spend with her darling grandmother), that weave in Perry’s past. The directors cut between performances of her best known songs in ways that may not resemble the concerts’ set lists, but provide emotional resonance to whatever is going on off-stage or from her personal history, going from, say, talk of her earlier failed attempts to be molded by various record executives into a performance of her song “Who Am I Living For?”  Obvious, but effective. The most powerful of these moments comes with a shockingly honest backstage moment during which her marriage is falling apart and she lies weeping on a cot before begging her makeup and hair people to get started for the show. Smart camera placement shows us her shaky efforts to compose herself as she crouches on a lift that will take her onstage to start her performance. She makes it, and the directors fade into a tearful performance of “The One That Got Away.”

With bits of backstage and background business woven so skillfully into the performances themselves, this concert film is a cut above the competition. It tells a good story. But the main attraction is probably going to be the songs themselves, the movie’s biggest success and weakness and what makes the movie an impressive event. The technical aspects of her tour translate to film quite well. Perry has lots of on-stage charisma that translates into on-screen charm. Her concert is a fun production, filled to bursting with goofy primary-colored costumes, talented background dancers, a dusting of pyrotechnics, confetti and foam, and, especially important to the 3D effect, layers of screens behind her and layers of screaming fans in front of her. (The best uses of the third dimension are laser beams that zip off the stage right towards your face.) The sound mixing of the movie gives her songs a boost with the thudding bass and enveloping surround sound definitely helping to give her live performances a you-are-there feel. The stagey spectacle does its theatrical job to full effect.

As for her songs, you already know if you like them or not. (And if you don’t, you probably won’t be seeing this movie anyways). Some of them, I could have done without. Her song “Peacock” is especially awful with overtly covertly dirty lyrics that can barely be called double entendres. (They’re more like half entendres at best.) But I think a great many of her songs – like “Teenage Dream,” “California Gurls,” “Firework,” “Part of Me,” “Hot N Cold” – are something like great pure pop confections. Those sequences in the film turned the theater into a party at my screening; the delight in the room was infectious. When Perry points to the audience and yells “Sing!” as she slides into a chorus, the on-screen spectators sang right out and so did the teenagers and their parents sitting all around me.

Cutforth and Lipsitz’s approach to assembling the film pays off. I was surprised how, between expertly produced numbers, the film managed to feel compelling and candid (often enough, at least) despite its gleaming corporate promotional packaging. This is a documentary with a clear agenda to deglamorize and humanize a pop star, making her on some level understandable and relatable, only to build her fa├žade back up, leaving her star power shining all the more powerfully by the end. I think it more or less gets there. There are lots of better movies to see this summer, but I doubt there will be many more that feel like such a theatrical experience. For the full effect, see it on as big a screen as possible in a theater with a booming sound system. It’s fun, definitely cheaper than buying a concert ticket and probably more comfortable than attending.

Note: One nice backstage moment involves a funny Lady Gaga cameo. Now there’s a pop star made for 3D. 

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