Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There is something strangely and weirdly appropriate that the soundtrack album to Glitter was released on the 11th of September 2001. If there was a foreshadowing of the disaster that was set to greet Mariah Carey’s film debut, then there was none more appropriate than its accompanying soundtrack album debuting on one of the most horrifying days in recent memory.
There has always been a correlation between music and film. Music stars have frequently tried to dip their toes into the film world, just as actors and actresses will try and see if they can be a pop star for a bit. While one could easily write about movie stars trying and failing to be music stars, or those flash-in-the-pan success stories where a screen star might hit it big with one or two hit singles, there are others like Jennifer Lopez that become more famous for being a pop star rather than for their movie work.
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The fortunes can always be rather mixed. David Bowie may have been one of the absolute greatest performing artists of all time, but his movie work was often prone to criticism; his cameo appearance in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (like so much of it) was met with near howls of derision upon its release. It’s a memorable and yet engrossingly off-putting moment of weirdness in a film full of such scenes, and yet Bowie’s appearance and the film would take years to be appreciated more.
The same could not be said of Mariah Carey’s first time as a movie star lead. While she had made a cameo appearance in the Chris O’ Donnell romantic comedy The Bachelor in 1999, it wouldn’t be until 2001 that she would be the centre focus of a feature film. That Carey herself has spoken of her regret about starring in the film says everything. What is probably even more shocking about the whole endeavour is that the screenplay for Glitter was written by Kate Lanier, who was the writer of the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It; the two films couldn’t be more different if they tried.
Of course, Glitter isn’t trying to be a story about the horrors of domestic violence, but then it isn’t doing anything remotely interesting either. Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall, a wonderful actor capable of delivering scene-stealing performances in many of his movie and television appearances, everything about Glitter feels lifeless and perfunctory; a weird piece of corporate synergy that sees a major movie studio, in this case, Columbia Pictures, which is owned by Sony, try to take one of their biggest and most commercially successful musicians and make blockbuster movie gold.
Ironically, by the time Glitter was ready to begin production after a protracted pre-production period of four years, Carey had switched record labels from Columbia to Virgin. The film was something of a pet project for the singer, but production was stalled by Columbia Records wanting a compilation album and Carey developing a further album after that, the results being that production was stalled even further. The resulting film that would eventually be produced is one that is remembered for all the wrong reasons.
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It’s understandable to be cynical about films starring musicians and the attempt to mine more commercial gold from the band or solo artist in question, and trying to make more money through a different artistic prism with their presence. Having said that, sometimes artistic gold can be struck. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! are wonderful films that may have been trying to capitalise on the success of The Beatles, but director Richard Lester brought a brilliantly stylish and experimental style to them that was a precursor to the music video. Even Purple Rain had its moments of style that enhanced what was a basic screenplay, helped by being a film of its moment. It’s a brilliantly stylish MTV video expanded to music form but made more solid by its splendid music performances.
There is nothing with Glitter that is worth recommending unless you want to watch a car crash of a film, one of those ‘so bad it’s good’ monstrosities that make you wonder why a major studio and everyone involved in it thought that the film was in any way worth pursuing, producing, and releasing. It’s a turgid soap opera of a story that plays in narrative and storytelling conventions of which the pop and rock music genres have played in ever since movies about musicians have been around, but even the more hard-core Carey fans would find very little to enjoy here and the tropes and cliches aren’t deployed in anything resembling an interesting way.
If A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain found much to enjoy with regards to the performances of its stars and the music that their films got to bring to the screen, there is none of that joy to be found with Carey’s first foray as a leading actress. Even the music isn’t great. Say what you want about Purple Rain, but the music in it is sensational. Having a writer like Kate Lanier involved in the project should have yielded something interesting and enthralling, but like its title, there is something weirdly ghastly about the whole thing, from its soap opera-like plotting to mediocre performances.
While some pop stars don’t make for the best actors (which is strange given that there is a movie star-like sense of performance with the elaborate nature of the music video), some can tap into their screen presence in brilliant ways that Carey struggles with throughout. The film isn’t strictly The Mariah Carey story, but is instead a fictional film that has been built to be a prime example of how great Carey is, but it backfires in the worst possible way, becoming one of those weird guilty pleasures that audiences can watch in a manner more fitting to things like The Room or Samurai Cop. The filmmaking is of a high standard, but it isn’t helped by Carey’s inability to put in a good performance, or her lack of screen chemistry with British actor Max Beesley.
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The narrative aims for high emotional beats, and there are, inevitably, comparisons that could be made with A Star is Born (by 2001 there were three versions, the last of which at this stage had been the Streisand/Kristofferson version) but it never quite hits the audience in the way that it’s clearly aiming for. Compare this film’s ending and sense of loss to 2018’s A Star is Born which had audiences crying over Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. The Bradley Cooper-directed film was a better version of taking a music star and placing them into a well put together drama that gives them dramatic heft to play while also playing into their singing strengths. To watch Glitter twenty years after its debut and see it in comparison to the might of Cooper and Gaga’s film really lays bare just how mediocre it is.
However, there is maybe something of a happy ending to the whole endeavour. Eight years later, Carey appeared in a small but pivotal role in Precious, where she played a social worker. Wearing very little makeup and putting in a performance with considerable grit, her appearance proved that there was in fact a great actress there with the right material, and her appearance in the film was amongst much of the acclaim that the film garnered. It was enough to make you forget and possibly even forgive everything about Glitter. Possibly.