Celebrity infatuation is a hardy fixture of the lowbrow. If you’ve been in a grocery checkout line or at the doctor’s office or in a sorority house’s bathroom, you are familiar with the headlines of “OMG LOOK AT THAT SUPER HUNK WALKING HIS DOG JUST LIKE US” or “HOW IN GOD’S NAME DID THE PRETTY GIRL OF TODAY GET THOSE ABS?? SECRETS REVEALED” or, of course, “CHEATING SCANDAL REVEALED!!” These headlines come from the tabloid press and delve deeply and often falsely into the lives of celebrities, exploiting glamor and marital problems with inflammatory language that was previously reserved for such fine publications.
In recent years, however, this same language and content has invaded newspapers (or at least their internet footprint) and other “serious” news publications. Of the “important” news stories of 2014, some of the most shared and discussed included Kim Kardashian’s butt and hacked naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. On my conglomerate Twitter feed of relatively liberal media from The New York Times to Buzzfeed (a very confusing media company that has intense journalistic investigations but mostly has lists of 17 things you can personally relate to so well), butts and nudes seemed to outnumber the stories on Ebola and ISIS. Naked pictures became fodder for social activism in terms of gender and Internet security, while thousands of West Africans contracted Ebola and died.
So, the line between “tabloid” and “real important news” has blurred to the point of invisibility. News headlines no longer tell us information but convince us to click, much like the tabloid magazine of yesteryear. One (me) might say that reporting and journalism on the whole has devolved to appear to the masses instead of attempting that old-fashion “integrity” thing, and one (me) might argue that celebrity infiltration into “serious” news stories has something to do with said devolution.
One “serious” and (arguably) news-y medium that has been particularly hard-hit by celebrity in recent years is documentary film. We have witnessed a barrage of documentaries on celebrities that lack multiple perspectives. Instead of an investigation, these docs feature fit celebrities in sensational and expensively produced films that highlight the troubles and hardships of the celebrity and celebrate their being. The celebrity has seized his or her life, done nothing wrong, and is a victim, like the rest of us, to this harsh world. All of this despite a completely manufactured image and a product that lacks any attempt at authentic storytelling. These are documentaries made about Celebrity by Celebrity, Inc., with the sole purpose to celebrate the efforts and genius of Celebrity in question.
But, instead of continuing my and many documentary filmmaker’s disappointment with the world that documentary has been trivialized, I want to show how there is hope! Celebrity is a fixture, yes, of the lowbrow, but celebrity as a subject can also be in an educated, artful, and integrity-ridden documentary! Wow! And in documentaries that have come out recently! Double wow! So, to provide you with something other than a rant, with this inaugural Brow Blog, I want to provide you with three celebrity documentaries of varying brows for you to enjoy in the New Year. The key terms here is “to enjoy,” which does not necessarily mean your brain follicles will react similarly or at all to the three “films.”
Like any modern-day, pseudo intellectual plebeian, sometimes (often), one must venture away from the realm of deep thought and sophistication and quench the thirst for brain-dead and sensorial footage that requires limited analysis and after-thought. So, if you are going to watch a documentary of the lowest brow, I recommend Katy Perry’s Part of Me because its SO MUCH FUN!
To watch Part of Me, it is necessary to first find yourself in an emotional rut. Been broken up with? Lost a job? Made a dumb, life-altering decision? Are you slightly intoxicated and can’t exactly focus on your reflection in the mirror? Then, it is time to let Katy Perry take you to a landscape of bubbles, superficial plight, and Hallmark-style American dreams. “If you work hard, you will accomplish anything you want!” Thank you, Katy, I can become a famous media personality! I will be happy one day!
The documentary follows Katy around the globe during her California Dreams Tour. This is an exciting year for her: an international, mega-millions, high-production, whipped-cream-filled tour and the beginning of her marriage with former heroin addict (and famous comedian) Russell Brand. Katy rocks the house in each city, and during her short, three- to four-day breaks, she flies to Russell’s side as the doting wife. Katy is a superstar in her personal and celebrity life. She has overcome so many struggles with her super religious family and music corporations that didn’t let her express her true self, but look at what she has been able to accomplish. Wow! Of course, the curated story shows how the stress of being super famous and being super in love is super hard. Poor Katy! She is crying! And tired! But her Brazilian fans are so loving, and it is so touching!
The doc is in essence an enjoyable, prolonged music video with a smattering of interviews with Katy and her staff. It features one grand scene with Katy’s out-of-touch grandmother, who clearly gives zero toots about Katy’s pink dress and the camera crew. We meet fans who have transformed their lives with Katy’s musical authenticity. She has saved them by showing them it’s okay to just be themselves. The doc filled me with confidence about myself as I passed out on the couch and woke up the next morning with wine stains on my shirt.
Glitz, glamor, and pop music shape these lowbrow celebrity documentaries, but these characteristics easily described last year’s Academy Award winning documentary feature, 20 Feet From Stardom. So, whether you like it or not, 20 Feet is the middlebrow celebrity documentary selection!
20 Feet From Stardom applies some of the same tropes and glitz from the Katy Perry-tiered documentaries, but it also investigates a topic of celebrity culture much in the shadows…several feet from the stardom, one (me) might say. It focuses on backup singers who have had prolific careers but never quite made it on their own. They sang with big-time names like David Bowie and Tina Turner and The Rolling Stones. The documentary is ridden with celebrity sightings: Sting and Mick Jagger are two interview subjects that appear frequently in the film to offer their wisdom and knowledge on these backup vocalists.
Like Part of Me, 20 Feet does feel like a prolonged music video. But it is a music video of discovery. We meet Merry Clayton, who is the iconic yet unrecognized voice in The Rolling Stones’ hit “Gimme Shelter.” She came into the studio in the middle of night, while pregnant, and wailed, a wail that far exceeded Mr. Jagger’s hopes and dreams. We also follow Darlene Love, who eventually made it into the Rock-n-Roll hall of fame, but was virtually silenced by the famed producer Phil Spector in the 1960s. These women in the film had their dreams squashed, thrown in the trash, compressed in the garbage truck, and hidden in the landfill because they needed to make a living and also follow their passion. Like Part of Me, 20 Feet is sympathetic and celebratory but the stories show how error also led to failure and how living your dream can be a dangerous state of being. It’s interesting. It’s easy. It’s fun.
Finally, I turn to the highbrow celebrity documentary for your viewing thought and pleasure. The film in question harkens to a clearer time when tabloids were tabloids and newspapers were newspapers. In fact, just to be super clear, it is entitled Tabloid, released in 2010. Director Errol Morris, who won the Academy Award—certainly a measure of something—for his documentary The Fog of War, invented a special camera for his documentaries, the awe-inspiring “Interrotron.” It allows the interviewee and the interviewer to look directly into each others’ eyes through the camera lens. So, instead of the off-center-bobble-head-looking-off-screen effect, the subject stares at the viewer.
The story unfolds layer by layer until you are left with unlimited twists and turns that seem almost unreal. You meet Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen, who seems reasonably sane if not slightly manic. In her words, she met a wonderful man named Kirk and fell in love with him. He loved her, too, but was then abducted by the evil Mormon cult and was sent to England for brainwashing. The other side of the story says that Joyce fell in obsession and kidnapped and raped Mormon Kirk during his mission in England. After the affair, Joyce became a tabloid sensation, known to Brits and Americans alike, who followed the melodrama through tabloid magazines and papers. Through her celebrity, more and more tabloid reporters investigated her life and discovered…DUN DUN DUN…so much more than the life of a simple beauty queen. As the interviewees in Tabloid point out, this story had an element for everyone: religion, sex, love, kidnaps, jail, disputes, and, most importantly, bondage.
Tabloid tells a celebrity drama without the glitz and glam and high profile interview subjects. It also borderlines on “art film” with clever animation and effects that compliment a relatively confusing story. It gets unpacked, which can be hardly said for Part of Me.
So, it’s the New Year. You literally have nothing better to do but lose 1000 pounds, so go watch some celebrity documentaries. They at least encourage one to get in shape.