Monday, November 29, 2010

I Am a Sucker For the Pop Star Bildungsroman

This is how I spent my afternoon. It was dark when I came out of the theater. Winter sucks.

It's opening week for Burlesque, the Christina Aguilera/Cher vehicle. I saw it today with my movie club, a group of friends that get together to watch movies that pop stars make (which got started with watching Cool As Ice, the Vanilla Ice movie). The trick is that the movie only qualifies if it was made after the pop star got famous. I was interested to see how Burlesque fit into the recent model of the genre, if you want to call it a genre.

It seems to me that it used to be that pop star movies were all about the protagonist already being famous but having to deal with that fame, such as Rick Springfield's 1984 movie Hard to Hold, the madcap musical adventures of the Spice Girls in Spice World (which was pretty much the Spice Girls in A Hard Day's Night), or maybe you might make a case for Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. Or sometimes pop stars were in biopics of someone else (Madonna in Evita or maybe you might make a case for J-Lo in Selena -- although that was more of a breakout role for her, so I don't know if that movie qualifies). Sometimes pop stars make a ridiculous movie of the genre I enjoy with my friends like Mariah Carey in Glitter but then almost disappointingly they go on to make a film where they actually are pretty good, like Mariah Carey was in Precious (or so I am told; I haven't actually seen Precious).

Most of the above mentioned movies with pop stars are not quite the same as the movies with pop stars with the Hollywood bildungsroman story arc, which are the ones I like the best. They usually document a naive yet spunky and talented youth, who ends up leaving the small town to "make it" in the big city. We watch them clumb up from rags to riches on a journey into success and fame, sometimes paying some sort of price for their sacrifices. The specific ways in which these plot developments unfold may differ, but those certain conventions are usually present. Usually the protagonist has had a sad upbringing, and is usually impoverished and troubled (Glitter or Burlesque). You usually see early on that they have some kind of raw and untrained talent: Britney Spears sang to Madonna albums in her bedroom in Crossroads so that viewers understand she knows how to sing, Christina Aguilera sang along with some sassy tune cleaning up after hours at work so the audience understands that she has higher aspirations than waiting on tables, and so on. There's always some defining moment where the protagonist uses their pluckiness to show their talent to the right person who makes the big decisions, proving they've "got what it takes," and they're given a chance to prove themselves; maybe the usual performer at the bar is sick and the protagonist jumps at the chance to strut their stuff (Burlesque).

The end of the movie will have some payoff, whether it's reconciling with foes (Purple Rain), saving-the-bar against uncertain demolition (Burlesque), bravely standing up to one's elders (Crossroads), etc. Although I have never actually seen Eminem's 8 Mile, there is no doubt in my mind that there's some you've-got-one-chance to-prove-yourself-by-rapping-in-front-of-a-massive-audience finale scene.

Also, I am always interested in seeing how the careers of Britney and Xtina parallel, since they are pretty much each other's peers going back to MMC. (And then also with Justin Timberlake -- does Britney ever feel he's the one that got away?) Anyway, I could't help when I saw this picture of Xtina in Burlesque, think of Britney in the video for "Circus." If you look at the pictures, I think you'll see what I mean.

Christina in Burlesque.
Britney in Circus.

So people are all into the old-timey stuff these days, which I quite like. I heard that Xtina's most recent album Bionic didn't do so well (they tried to Lady Gaga her up with being kind of like a crazy fashionista weirdo thing which is not her style, and then they also tried to do all that mechanical steampunky android science-fiction stuff with her, and of course that didn't work either because that's also not her style too) -- and I'm told that it was all kind of disasterous for her. Or at least that's what I inferred from the the way they talked about it on Sound Opinions. The truth is that I haven't even heard anything on the Bionic album, at least not knowingly. Maybe I'll go scope it out just out of curiosity.

I did hear someone speculate that Burlesque was supposed to be an attempt to revive Xtina's career, which is interesting, because it actually seems a bit late for a pop star like her to making this type of movie in her career, it being such that when pop stars make those movies with the rags to riches get famous movies, it's usually after just a couple albums. Or maybe I'm only thinking of the fact that Britney Spears made her version of the pop-star-story movie Crossroads eight years ago, and both Xtina and Brit are pretty much peers. On the other hand, Crossroads was hardly a movie with the same type of dancing and singing that was featured so heartily in Burlesque.

All this is to say that I was almost disappointed that I kind of liked the movie even though it was strangely saccharine for a movie that was so sexy. Also, there was of course some cringeworthy stuff as you would expect -- one scene I am thinking of specifically is one in which Cher performs a ballad lamenting the potential loss of her dear burlesque club, that was pretty er, well let's just say it was The Greatest Love of All fed through a St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion) processor. And the scene was almost gratuitously emotional the way the camera falls on the DJ's resigned sigh as he turns off the stereo at the end of the song with a pensive nod of sympathy. I did actually burst out laughing. So there was that. But the singing and dancing scenes were actually pretty amazing.

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