Why Katy Perry's 'Part of Me' flopped. And why I still want to see more concert films
A few years ago, I wrote a post ardently pleading for the come- back of the concert film. I argued that if squeaky-clean teeny-bop singers-as-products like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers could top the list of the five highest-grossing concert movies of all time (adjusted for inflation, the top film on that list would still be Woodstock), then surely an artist like, say, Lady Gaga might blast those same box-office records to smithereens. More to the point, a concert movie actually aimed at people over the age of fourteen might now have a chance to make a cultural splash. And so I said: Bring back the concert film! I swear it will work!
Be careful what you wish for…at least, when it’s in the form of a prediction. This past weekend, a mainstream concert movie finally did come along that showcased a gorgeously talented, insanely beloved pop star who has sold millions and millions and millions of albums to adults. But instead of turning out to see Katy Perry: Part of Me, adults basically said: Who cares? To an extent, the movie was a perverse victim of its own demographic sleight-of-hand, its not-so-sneaky attempt to package Katy Perry as the latest evangelically wholesome sexy-but-sweet tween-girl role model. Seen through the right lens, of course, she is that thing. But she is also so much more. The current wave of teen popsters (Miley, Justin, etc.) have never come close to doing a song as effortlessly racy as “I Kissed a Girl” — or as drivingly infectious as “Last Friday Night.” Katy Perry knows how to wrap herself around a musical hook so that it buries itself in your pleasure centers. She’s a much bigger and more dynamic artist than any of those G-rated robotron idols. Her songs aren’t just catchy, they’re defining.
Yet the fact that she spills so far out of the niche of teen pop may, ironically, be why her movie underperformed. She didn’t hook the tween girls the way that, say, the Biebs did in Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, before he traded in his windswept early-Beatles hair and discovered that he was suddenly like the emperor without clothes. (That hair made him look like a girl, which little girls love; his “rugged” new guy look…not so much.) That said, Part of Me basically insisted on selling Perry as a teen idol anyway, and that probably turned off adults.
Or could the problem be more basic? After all these years of throwaway performance clips as DVD extras, of wall-to-wall music programming on MTV and VH1 and Fuse, it may be that a concert film strikes most people as a redundancy. Not just something they don’t need to pay for, but something they don’t need to see because they have, in essence, already seen it. American Express has sponsored a series of on-line-only concert movies (a Kenny Chesney film directed by Jonathan Demme; a Duran Duran film directed, complete with scrawled-on Fire Walk With Me flames, by David Lynch), and maybe that’s the future of this form, but the results, I have to say, are a touch indifferent. The filmmakers needed more access than they got. These little movies are missing the backstage views of a pop personality that add dimension to what we see onstage. Maybe high-end, big-screen concert films for adults are destined, at best, to be a kind of boutique event, the way that U2 3D was in 2007 — or, 20 years before that, Stop Making Sense.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that the form has vast potential in an era of pop music as diversely mesmerizing as this one. Let’s remember that what a great concert film does — I’m thinking of movies like The Last Waltz (1978), Dave Chapelle’s Block Party (2005), or my all-time personal favorite, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones (1973) — is to weave us into the music with a voyeuristic psychodramatic charge that is very different from what we experience at a live show staring up (or down) at the stage as our eyes flicker back and forth to oversize monitors. Nothing, of course, can duplicate the primal electricity of being there, but the democratizing paradox of a good concert film is that the performers are no longer bigger than us. They’re exactly as big as us. And so the sensation of what truly makes them stars takes on an added human dimension. Maybe Katy Perry: Part of Me wasn’t a smash, but it’s still a terrific movie that invites us to see past Katy Perry’s guises and disguises and to touch the incandescent songstress beneath. In that light, here are a few suggestions for other concert films that I, for one, would give a lot to see:
Lady Gaga: Put Your Paws Up, directed by Baz Luhrmann. Her last album was a bit of a comedown, but she’s still the queen monster of operatic pop, and a director like Luhrmann could turn her stage show into a modern-day Moulin Rouge of exhilarating excess.
Kanye West: Everything I Am, directed by Craig Brewer. As a musical stylist, he’s the mix-and-match thrift-shop genius of the hip-hop era, and Brewer, the director of Hustle & Flow and Footloose, has the range — and visual style — to set those sounds loose.
Coldplay: Rule the World, directed by Richard Linklater. They soar in concert, and with a fascinating frontman, as Chris Martin chafes against the built-in geek factor of a rock star at the keyboards with his hyperkinetic movements. Away from the piano, he embraces the audience with an almost Springsteenian love, and that’s what a director like Linklater could bring out: the whole drama of Coldplay’s ecstatic connection to their fans.
Radiohead: Karma Police on Tour, directed by Jonathan Demme. It’s about time that the cathartic caterwauling of Thom Yorke and his drone-guitar brigade was bottled for the big screen. If Jonathan Demme were doing the equivalent today of what he did in 1988 when he captured Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense, he would stop adding pages to his Neil Young scrapbook and do a movie like this one.
Beyoncé: Single Ladies Show, directed by Lee Daniels. Her sizzling power-burlesque stage moves were made for the big screen, and so was her flashing-eyed movie-star sexiness. Director Lee Daniels (Precious) may sound like an odd choice to helm this, but he’s always been crazy in love with the kind of feminine flamboyance that Beyoncé turns into a thrilling statement.
Coachella 2013, directed by Sofia Coppola. It’s no coincidence that the two most artful concert films ever made — Woodstock and The Last Waltz — were both assemblages of multiple performers. To watch a movie like those is to take the temperature of an entire era, and Coppola, with her wide-open gaze, would be the ideal filmmaker to climb aboard the Coachella train and record where rock has been, is now, and is going.
And how about you? Would you like to see the concert film — for real live non-teen-pop adults! — make a comeback? And who would you like to see captured in one?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman