Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: though it's technically a remake, what strikes me about Sparkle is its affinity with a much more recent film, which also had a title that sounds like lip gloss for 9-year-old girls, and which also tried to making an actor out of a pop music figure. Really, they made this one way too easy for me.
Precious: It Was a Book Before We Made It Into a Movie came out, one of the things that cropped up in a great many reviews was that Mariah Carey was, shockingly, unbelievably, unfathomably good in her medium-small role. This should not be inherently surprising: singers frequently appear in medium-small roles in movies and do just fine for themselves; people as diverse as David Bowie, Kris Kristofferson, and Bette Midler have all made that jump and frequently been not just good but great, so Carey's prominence as the third-most impressive performer in her movie should not have been necessarily revolutionary. But one thing that Bowie, nor Kristofferson, nor Midler had, that Carey did, was Glitter, a transcendentally ill-advised 2001 vehicle that did not, as it is often said, represent the singer's first stab at movie acting - she appeared in the Chris O'Donnell/Renée Zellweger romcom The Bachelor that was lost at the same time that everybody in the entire world forgot that Chris O'Donnell was a thing, once. It was, however, hers and her people's attempt to make a movie star out of her and not just a character actor, one of those decisions that probably seemed really keen in the late '90s, when Carey's career was perched right on the line between "extremely successful recording artist" and "pop icon", but was in reality about as well-informed as the fateful moment when Kevin Costner managed to finagle a small fortune out of Universal to make his epic about post-apocalyptic fish people. Glitter, and its soundtrack album, tanked so hard that Carey's career stalled out for nearly half a decade, though as aggressively terrible as the movie is, she's lucky to have rebounded from it at all.
Herein, Carey plays Billie Frank, the child of a thoughtless, meanspirited white father who vanishes when the girl is quite young, and an alcoholic black mother (Lillian Frank) who barely manages to support both her habit and her daughter by singing, which involves, at least in the movie's first scene, dragging the terrified child onstage to complete her numbers when she is herself to plastered to finish. It's all okay, though, because little Billie has the most pure and powerful and beautiful voice of all time, and even her drunken mom understands that She Has A Gift That Will Change Her Future.
But not for a while yet: first Billie has to end up in foster care, so she can grow up with two tart-tongued ethnic friends, who literally introduce themselves, "she's black, and I'm Latin", and so I never bothered thinking of them as anything but Black Girl (Da Brat) and Latina Girl (Tia Texada), and when they're all grown up in the halcyon days of 1983, when the void left by the death of disco has given the world a need for a new kind of pop, they get a job working as backup singers for the gorgeous but vocally untalented Sylk (Padma Lakshmi, who was dating Salman Rushdie at the time, and is thus by default the most interesting person involved in the making of this movie). The shifty record impresario Timothy Walker (Terrence Howard) - who we don't immediately know is shifty, but he's a record impresario, so it's safe to assume - directs Billie to sing for Sylk, all Singin' in the Rain like, and this ruse works for just a short time before it is discovered by local club DJ Julian Dice (Max Beesley), who rescues her from Walker's nefariousness and starts writing songs that will make her a star in her own right. Sadly, there are certain dark melodramatic loose ends lying in wait, and while Dice and Billie fall in love, his attempts to guide her career look more and more possessive, and eventually they split up but we know they're meant to be together because they right the same song across time and space, but just when they're about to patch things up, Walker shoots Dice, and Billie sings at Madison Square Garden about pain and suffering and it is The Most Transcendentally Beautiful and Tragic Thing.
The legend goes that writers Cheryl L. West and Kate Lanier cobbled this together from details out of Carey's own life, so it's convenient for them that she apparently survived through the exact plot of A Star Is Born (all versions, but since it's music, primarily the Streisand one). As well as, for that matter, the Lanier-scripted What's Love Got to Do with It. But really, the aspiring music star rises to prominence though personal pain genre is its own thing, just as much as a film noir or a Western or a slasher movie is. So there's no actual reason to slag on it for being predictable, though it is very much that, to an absurd degree. There are plenty of things wrong with it before we have to crouch on "boo! hiss! cliché!" to bash at the movie. For example: the myth of Carey's autobiography does not explain why the action is set in 1983, when the singer was a hearty 13 years old, except that it permits the film to compound all its other sins by adding anachronism to the mix: if there's one thing Carey's overproduced screeching doesn't sound like (and even not being a Carey fan by any stretch, I can still recognise that Glitter is some of the worst material in her singing career), it's '80s pop; the fashions and to an extent the production design might tell us one thing, but the noises we hear tell us something very different. In a better movie, this tension would possibly be enough to be an irritation that derails the project, but Glitter is so pointless and dumb that it never matters. It sucks when Carey sings; it sucks when she does not sing; that the nature of its sucking shifts in between does not register and does not matter.
Nothing works here: Vondie Curtis-Hall's directing (because why not let a TV actor direct your biopic?) is largely perfunctory except when it is terrible, as in the moment where à propos of nothing, he uses an explosion of glitter - hey, it's the title of the movie! - as a scene transition, and the film as a whole is shot by Geoffrey Simpson to be much too dark and gloomy. Mostly, though, Glitter is just not a good film; it becomes overtly bad primarily through the writing, which compounds the mustiness of the plot with lines like "Is she black? Is she white? We don't care. She's exotic. I want to see more of her breasts", and shuffles through characters and situations so abruptly that a good ten minutes after Black Girl and Latina Girl had been dropped at the side of the road, I found myself wondering what they were up to and I had to go back to find out. Oh, readers, that is a lie: I did not rewind. I went to the Wikipedia page.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is worst about the film is the acting: and surprisingly Carey is not Worst in Show; that honor clearly goes to Beesley, whose attempts to play a smoldering loverboy and sensitive artistic collaborator are undone by his permanently leering expression, and sleazy line deliveries that suggest "...in my pants!" is being silently added to the end of every sentence he says. But Carey is probably the bigger problem, for it is a movie entirely about her; not her as a music star and certainly not her as a person, but her as a product to be consumed by the great teeming mass of culture, and while Glitter game well into her career, it still has the sense of presenting her to us: her is Mariah, here is her voice, here is her body; devour her, lust after her, idolise her. The reduction of the pop star to nothing but her hair and breasts and skin color is a tremendously poor fit for a movie about the soul inside a pop star who doesn't want to be seen as just those things; making matters even worse, Carey is made particularly unappealing as both a music idol and sex object in a movie that makes her look overwhelmingly crashed out. Her time off for "exhaustion" after the movie's completion was undoubtedly the egocentricity of the rich and detached, but at the same time, you don't have to watch more than a couple of scenes to see that, in fact, she was not a terribly energetic and happy person.
Maybe that's why her performance is so sublimely incompetent; I don't know. It doesn't work, though, not for an instant. When she is called upon to express emotions, you can watch the individual pieces click into place ("now I have to make a frown, and now I have to crinkle my forehead, and now I have to look down at the ground, and now I have to tremble my lip"), and it's so much exactly what you want it to look like when a famous person, detached from human experience, has to train themselves how to feel feelings, it's hard not to read just that into a movie: here is Mariah Carey, the robot, breaking apart for our displeasure. Christ, she can't even sing convincingly, lip-syncing so badly that one pities the editor who had to decide that, against all the evidence, these were the best takes.
Glitter is so much about Carey at every moment and in every respect that nothing else needed to go wrong: the singer being a commandingly poor actress and deeply unsympathetic anti-emotive trainwreck are all it takes to make Glitter rancid and unwatchable; that the rest of the movie ecstatically joins her in a rush to the bottom is merely icing. This is an unusually brittle, heartless movie, stupid and empty, and the sight of Carey desperately failing to put over anything resembling a character is more pathetic and off-putting than it is hilariously bad. Glitter is too washed-out and worthless to even be so bad it's good, and when a pop star's semi-biopic can't get up even to that level of tackiness, things have gone even farther wrong than you'd already have expected from this misbegotten scenario.
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