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“Katy Perry: Part of Me”
Directed by Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz
I had mixed feelings and fairly low expectations going into “Katy Perry: Part of Me.” It’s fair to say I’m not her target demographic and although I know most of her songs, I have a tendency to identify several of them with “Glee” rather than with Katy Perry. I had also seen her in a recent interview in which she sounded a little ditzy and came across seeming like a better musical guest than an interviewee. That said, I actually enjoyed the movie, albeit still with mixed feelings overall.
For starters, there are enough relatively complete performances for this to feel like a concert movie as much as a documentary. And it’s fascinating just to watch the stage sets and the costumes – including a surprising number of changes within a single song. This is a tour that’s described in the film as having seven buses and more tractor trailer rigs – and then you watch them take all that gear to multiple international locations. All of which makes you think about the army of logisticians involved and the stories you hear about successful tours that never make money.
Like many people, I “discovered” Katy Perry when her hit “I Kissed a Girl” achieved omnipresence on the radio in 2008 – and it was easy to think of her as a sudden and extreme overnight success, which made a documentary about her career only four years later seem a little odd. However, I had recently read an article about how British diver Tom Daley had written a memoir at the age of 18 that actually managed to sell me on the idea that he had a story to tell, so I rolled with it. And, amongst other things, the film does a decent job of describing the years and the unsuccessful and soul-destroying record contracts that preceded 2008 – there really is more to the backstory. It’s still a relatively short time span, but it’s not four years.
I also watched a recent Piers Morgan interview in which a guest was lamenting that kids no longer have career aspirations for specific occupations, they simply want to be famous. That may be a generalization but at some point in the film Katy Perry reinforces it by saying that at age 9 she knew that she wanted to be on a stage with people cheering her when she got older – and this was before she was singing, so it comes across as fame for fame’s sake rather than fame for a reason. And in that sense, the film may not be what I’d want a 9 year watching as you do see this dream of non-specific fame realize itself on a grand scale.
However, the film also shows the difficult times, not just in the down years, but also in terms of relationships. At the start of filming, she’s madly in love with husband Russell Brand and by the end the marriage is over – and that’s after countless crazily scheduled flights across the world in an attempt to squeeze in some together time between venues. In that sense this may be a film about a successful singer-songwriter on a massive world tour, but it’s not a fairy tale of magical outcomes and uninterrupted joy – there’s a point where’s she’s so run down and so emotionally drained that a show is almost canceled and you watch her dig herself out of this dark place in order to be that peppy, upbeat dynamo the audience paid to see.
That aspect of the film reminded me of “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” – the documentary that followed the concert tour O’Brien undertook between losing “The Tonight Show” and starting his cable talk show. There we saw a celebrity who, despite good intentions and a decent outlook, was pummeled into the ground by the constant need to be everywhere and to be everybody’s best friend at the drop of a hat.
She also had to break away from a strictly religious upbringing – not with a loss of faith but with a separation from the expectations of her devout, traveling preacher parents. And, as you can imagine, “I kissed a girl and I liked it” is not exactly her mother’s favorite lyric.
The movie does just enough to make even a non-fan appreciate the struggle and the success, including the attention to detail in the staging and the wardrobe choices, and the loyalty to and from key members of her team. From a distance there’s a sense of a stage persona that seems completely artificial and as self-consciously manufactured as a Madonna or Lady Gaga, but the film manages to make it seem, accurately or otherwise, much more of an extension of her own personality than some calculated, focus group approved, synthetic pop star.
But it doesn’t actually delve all that deeply into Katy Perry the person – we’re hearing more from others than from her directly. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing but it does feel like we’ve only skimmed the surface of what drove her through the lean years. We’re seeing the success and the scale of the success, and we’re being reassured that it has been earned, but one can’t help but feel that there’s some deeper drama yet to be mined. So maybe in another four years we’ll get “Katy Perry: Another Part of Me” and they’ll dig a little more. If so, I’ll probably watch – she’s pleasantly surprised me once and next time she’ll have the benefit of the doubt on her side.
"Katy Perry: Part of Me" is in wide release and is playing at multiple local theaters.