Impersonal Katy Perry Documentary Circles The Drain

Katy Perry stormed onto the pop music scene in the summer of 2008 behind the alt-pop grind of “I Kissed A Girl.” And we liked it. Her immediate star potential arose from an edge that was sorely lacking on top 40 radio, especially from female artists. Her first album on Capitol Records was a smart mix of pop that felt dangerous – but not too dangerous – and singer-songwriter alternative rock. Songs like “Waking Up In Vegas” and “Ur So Gay” marked the arrival of a new voice on the airwaves, and her future as a boundary-pushing pop starlet was bright.

2010’s “Teenage Dream” pushed boundaries in all the wrong ways. Perry ditched the power pop and fuzzy guitars of her Capitol debut for a sleeker, more streamlined type of pop, full of sleazy double-entendres and the occasional swear word. But, ironically, it was the safest route she could have taken. Instead of taking actual risks (both lyrically and sonically), she gave in to the status quo. Instead of tweaking sexual stereotypes (“One Of The Boys”), she began to inhabit them (“California Gurls”).

Her first feature film, “Katy Perry: Part Of Me,” focuses heavily on her recent work and glosses over some of the more interesting years of her life. Perry’s teenage years as a Christian artist are given plenty of screen time because they fit the narrative (“good girl turned pin-up queen”), but her endless struggles in the industry as an Alanis Morrisette wannabe are all but ignored. The legitimate musical talents of an artist like Perry are essentially irrelevant to her image as a pop star, and the film makes no arguments to the contrary. The corporate entity that she’s become is on full display, and the filmmakers make no attempt to hide that Perry produced the film herself.

The story of “Part Of Me” boils down to “Katy is super nice and she works really hard.” We see her interacting with fans before, during, and after shows, and she comes across as incredibly genuine and kind. Her creative team has nothing but glowing things to say about her. But why wouldn’t they? Especially in a film that she’s funding and likely received final cut on? “She was anything but an overnight success,” they repeat. It’s likely that she had a very tough road to stardom, but it doesn’t seem particularly pertinent to a 3D film so obsessed with candy and lasers and bubbles and whipped cream cannons.

The most interesting (and regrettably, most underdeveloped) aspect of the film is Perry’s fledgling relationship with her then-husband, movie star Russell Brand. We get only fleeting glimpses of the marriage and why it fell apart (excessive travel is singled out as the main culprit), but it’s the movie’s one throughline that held my interest. When the marriage very clearly comes to an end on camera, Perry composes herself, through her tears, and manages to put on a performance – just like any other night. Taken at face value, this display of strength as a human being and a professional is the strongest evidence that she is exactly who the film portrays her as.

The concert scenes are visually astute, but they’re so often intercut with talking heads and interviews with fans – the least interesting moments of the film – that much of the momentum is consistently lost. The song choices are in line with the tour being in support of “Teenage Dream,” but a few of that album’s deeper cuts fall flat, particularly “Who Am I Living For?” and “Hummingbird Heartbeat.” “Peacock” is unnecessary and seems wildly inappropriate for a PG-rated film. However, most of her biggest hits are accounted for. There’s even an exceptionally out of place cover of “Hey Jude,” presumably included because the producers could afford it.

The best concert films and rock documentaries often reveal harsh truths about their subjects, no matter how intriguing or uncomfortable. Works in this genre can be rollercoasters of bliss and sadness and awkwardness and pain. “Katy Perry: Part Of Me” plays more like an infomercial. “Gimme Shelter” it is not. Katy Perry’s music is undeniably enjoyable for fans of pop music (myself included), but “Part Of Me” is not enlightening in the least and completely fails to allow its audience inside the music or the mind of the artist behind it. Perry’s obsession with sweets is one of her trademarks, but her big screen debut is less like the cotton candy featured on the cover of “Teenage Dream” and more like a Milk Dud. Emphasis on the word “dud.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Studio: Paramount Insurge
Director: Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz
Starring: Katy Perry
MPAA Rating: PG (for some suggestive content, language, thematic elements and brief smoking)