Katy Perry: Part of Me Dir. Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz

[Paramount Pictures; 2012]

Styles: biopic, behind the music
Others: Never Say Never, Journey to Fearless

Some thoughts on Part of Me (#KP3D).

Dreaming in teenage: For almost two years, Katy Perry has been immersed in the promotion of her immensely successful album Teenage Dream. Receiving mixed reviews upon its release, it has nonetheless gone on to sell millions of copies, and produce an unprecedented number of singles. Teenage Dream was, and remains, a curious assortment of songs: varied and loose in content, mood, and composition from track to track, it almost never knows where to fall (“a plastic bag … wanting to start again”), and searches out its identity all along until the restless end, where, finally, ”it’s just the beginning.” It falls somewhere between Derrida’s account of Nietzsche’s style and my friends’ Tumblr accounts: totally undecided, or undecidable, like a teenage dream.

Parts: “This is the part of me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, no.” A documentary is never more than a part, but which parts we choose to tell are important. Funded by Katy Perry, and starring her and her friends/employees, there is no assumption of objectivity from the outset. So this is Katy’s story as she wants to tell it. It works forward, in part, from her past: a mildly repressive Christian household, and modestly successful CCM career. It travels through her ‘rebellion’: moving to Los Angeles, being in Los Angeles, doing things in Los Angeles, making celebrity friends in Los Angeles, listening to Alanis, “[kissing] a girl,” and disappointing her parents, it seems, a little. Throughout, it shows the beginnings of her career as a mainstream songwriter: the difficulty of working with major labels and the ease of finally settling into one. Subtract her music career, and it’s a pretty normal story: began there, overcame a bit, and ended here. What distinguishes Katy Perry, obviously, is her commercial success. But success is not the point of Part of Me any more than coherence is the point of Teenage Dream. Questions of identity outlive the spoils of success; a film can’t cohere the former. They are, by nature, fragmentary. Her words to describe herself, not mine: weird, cartoon, baby. Me, me, me. In love, depressed, divorced. Me, me, me.

…then had a menage à trois: About sex: comparing her music and videos to her life, you sense, immediately, a disconnect between appearances. (“All of her songs come from her diary.”) On the one hand, kissing girls and threesomes; on the other, riding bikes with her husband and flying home on weekends off. “Don’t cry over spilt heteronormativity,” you might say to console her in the wake of her divorce, but the romance story Part of Me tells is surprisingly vanilla. On screen, husband and wife, before the divorce, relate respectfully, dignified, predictably. (In the midst of her divorce, one watches a tearful Katy Perry singing “The One That Got Away” as though, for the first time, it meant something. How many concerts before did she sing that song, dry? The tears are the supplement that the unexperienced romantic narrative never has structured into itself in the first place. They were a kind of new verse.) This isn’t about judgement, much less exposure, as she is entitled to the privacy that we all are, and the respect. (Let her parents be the ones to say, “it’s just a phase.”) But one thing strikes me as problematic: the very young girl sitting with her dad, a few seats below me, mouthing along to the lyrics of “Last Friday Night” (and its impossible-to-endure litany of escapades) and “Peacock”: “I wanna see your peacock cock cock cock your peacock cock.” This, when all Katy Perry wants to do (by her admission) is grow up, get married, and, when she’s ready, become a mother. In the meantime, whipped cream and fireworks shoot from her nipples, and in the meantime, she lies, inconsolably, on her bed as her divorce is pending. Throughout the film, often, night after night, is one recurring sequence of Katy Perry being raised to the stage to perform, smiling and dressed ridiculously, boob accessories spinning. On one such inconsolable night, she almost backs out, understandably distraught, but instead just holds a frown until the last possible moment. It’s all about the show.

The one that got away: In another life, I wouldn’t have been interested by the questions raised in Part of Me. Watching Katy Perry’s life play out at the beginning of her premature biopic reminds me that I’m only a year older than her — much poorer, but not very different. Our lives (Southern Californian and Pentecostal by accident, barely rebellious, too romantic, unformed, heartbroken) are like a hundred, thousand, million others. Throughout the film, everyday voices are interspersed: through Tweets, YouTube homages and covers, and (staged, but sincere) encounters with fans. The few celebrity cameos in the film comprise its most disingenuous moments (Rihanna looks bored, Lady Gaga doesn’t even show her face). But we know, too, that they likely comprise her most regular forms of exchange outside of family and employees. As Perry has rarely had “authenticity problems,” one wonders why we need a film to humanize her. So there are tears, fake farts, faces without makeup, fuck-ups, jokes, exercises, bad breath, times for checking Facebook, bed head, times for checking Twitter, rehearsals, worries, times for not paying attention at all, hugs, prayers, all the stuff of every day life — regardless of one’s level of commercial success. Part of Me never descends into pure gossip, either; Brand remains a major presence throughout much of the film, though only shaping moments by his absence and his silence. So the film, in its cultural moment, explains nothing. It doesn’t even set the trajectory for her future career: “My music is about to get real fucking dark,” she says. So the film, as a commercial, fails. (It ends with Perry playing “California Girls” to an audience of thousands, dancing with gingerbread men, shooting whipped cream, finally, into the audience, and justifying in one moment the 3D part of #KP3D.) One gets the sense that she leaves Part of Me changed but happy. On Twitter, in the meantime, she flaunts each new day’s new dark look. Me? I see nothing remarkable in the effort to control the telling of one’s own story. But control can be a dangerous fantasy to sell an audience, especially when your life is spinning away from it. Still, “If it’s not like the movies, that’s how it should be, yeah.” Yes, even if it’s your own movie.

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