Today’s music movies lack in comparison to those of an earlier generation, which lured in viewers with the possibility of seeing the private selves that existed behind the public faces.
There are certain things fans expect to see in Katy Perry: Part of Me, the cheeky pop queen’s first concert movie (it hits theatres Thursday). A shortlist would include a rich variety of day-glo hair colours, eye-popping fireworks displays, and brassieres that shoot out some kind of confectionary treat.
But unlike other music movies that purport to offer fans not just a virtual concert experience but, as Part of Me’s PR copy puts it, “a backstage pass,” there are many sights that won’t be featured. For instance, you will not see Perry give surly answers to a ravenous pack of press hounds, like Bob Dylan did in Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film about the icon’s first U.K. tour. Nor will she nod off in a heroin-induced stupor like Keith Richards in Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank’s officially unreleased but oft-bootlegged document of the Rolling Stones on tour in the early ’70s. And though one scene portrays Perry crying over the breakdown of her marriage to Russell Brand, nothing in Part of Me will convey the alienating effects of fame with the same poignancy as Lonely Boy, the 1962 NFB documentary on then-teen-phenom Paul Anka that represents the first intersection between the pop world and the fly-on-the-wall filmmaking style known as cinema vérité.
For anything like that to be part of the picture, Katy Perry: Part of Me would have to be a very different kind of movie. But judging by other recent films about music mega-stars—including Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and the rather less exuberant Michael Jackson: This Is It—we’d require a different kind of subject, too. Whereas an earlier generation of music movies lured in viewers with the possibility of seeing the private selves that existed behind the public faces, today’s examples indicate just how unlikely it is to capture a star having any kind of unguarded moment. They know too well that a camera is always on, whether it’s wielded by a film crew or one of their own entourage. To make any distinction between a performing self and the backstage one seems a relic of showbiz’s distant, pre-TMZ past. Better to be Gaga about it and just shuffle through your array of masks as circumstances demand.
In that respect, the most prescient music movie of the past four decades is not something by a vérité hero, but Madonna: Truth or Dare, Alex Keshishian’s 1991 film about the singer’s Blond Ambition tour. The fact that three dancers featured in the movie sued the production for invading their privacy and exploiting their lives as storylines now seems almost quaint, given the intrusiveness tolerated by Gene Simmons’ brood. Equally unsurprising to today’s reality-TV viewers is the accusation that Madonna contrived events in the supposedly candid behind-the-scenes segments (including a teary visit to her mother’s grave).
Ironically, Madonna’s “documentary” is really not so different from the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night, even if the earlier film was rather more bald-faced in its fictionalization (and sanitization) of the Fab Four’s backstage existence. In any case, the influence of both movies hovers over every effort to give any of popular music’s reigning champs a big-screen treatment that makes a star seem both glamorous and authentic.
Of course, there are music movies that reveal something else once the curtains are pulled back. Indeed, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to be in the music business after bearing witness to Radiohead’s collective misery in Meeting People Is Easy or Metallica’s vicious interpersonal dynamics in Some Kind of Monster.
Otherwise, the kind of frankness that was once prevalent in movies about musical heroes usually only occurs in scrappier docs about has-beens, never-weres, and maybe-still-could-bes. Sacha Gervasi’s true-life tragicomedy about the demi-legendary Toronto metal band, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, has arguably become the most famous entry in an ever-expanding category that includes Dig!, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and more recent examples like Last Days Here and Hit so Hard. Maybe some future filmmaker will get to make one that’s just as good about Katy Perry, should her career ever take a nosedive and leave her doing the lounge circuit in Reno. Given the strong possibility that any star’s career could turn into a black hole, she’d be wise to keep those brassieres in good condition.