In New Zealand, the magical wonderland in which I live, Katy Perry: Part of Me (released in various formats with The Movie and 3D appended to its title) came out the same weekend as The Amazing Spider-Man. I saw both movies that weekend. Both make a concerted effort at examining their protagonists’ “true” identities. But surprisingly, it’s Part of Me that succeeds the best - just not in the way it probably intends. It made me both a fan of Katy Perry and a skeptic of Katy Perry simultaneously, which is quite an achievement.
Much like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never by the same directing duo of Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, Part of Me is a concert movie slash (auto)biographical documentary, intercutting live performance with interviews, archival footage and behind-the-scenes drama to paint a flattering portrait of its intensely popular subject. Its relationship with reality and myth is a fascinating one - one that I and the friends who accompanied me to the screening spent literal hours discussing afterwards using words like "Kafkaesque". It is one of the most interesting movies of 2012, up there with Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors. OK, Badass Digest. Let’s talk about Katy Perry.
The concert “half” of the film is legitimately great. I’ve rarely seen 3D cinematography looking so rich and crisp and deep - 3D is truly at its best when documenting live events. In selected songs from her California Dreams world tour, Perry gives a terrific performance and her songs really shine. There’s a strong songwriter and vocalist behind all that candy floss, and the tour’s timing - the heady heights of Teenage Dream, prior to the release of the horrible Prism - is peak Perry. (I didn’t know that at the screening, experiencing most songs afresh; since, I have done my homework.) And visually, between its ridiculous magic-trick costume reveals, choreographed dance numbers, and production design, it’s a dazzling show.
There’s a lot to be read into the odd tonal shifts the show goes through. The candy-coated aesthetic of the early songs (featuring terrifying giant purple cat Kitty Purry which I promise I am not making up) gives way to the sci-fi S&M leather of “E.T.” with disconcerting rapidity. Transitioning from girly fun, self-empowerment and winking innuendo to, I shit you not, Cronenbergian themes of sex, objectification, addiction and depression can cause whiplash. So can the frequent double-takes at Perry’s vast array of breast ornaments, or perhaps her giant candycane cum cannon. But you know what? This filmed live show is so damned good - the songs so hooky, the production so colourful, and to hell with it, the Perry so sexy - that the movie made me an instant fan. Fuck you, Katy Perry: Part of Me! You won me over!
But the saccharine live stuff has nothing on the subtextual intrigue of the even more saccharine documentary stuff, where the real meat lies.
For all its bluster about giving fans a glimpse at “the real Katy Perry,” Part of Me is one hundred percent constructed so as to portray Perry in the best possible light. It’s a commercial for Perry that preaches directly, unashamedly and exclusively to her legions of well-converted choristers. It occasionally veers close to revealing character flaws, but they’re presented as situation-specific, or the kind of endearing “flaws” you’d bring up in a job interview. They’re there to humanise Perry and make fans feel like she’s one of them. But she’s not one of them. She’s better than them.
So who is Katy Perry? Part of Me posits several answers to that question, but like the blind men feeling up the elephant, none of them quite manage to make it come. We get fed the usual story: the conservative upbringing and early Christian music career under birth name Katy Hudson, the Alanis Morissette-inspired girl-rock phase, and the bubble gum era (since supplanted by God knows what - I don’t give a shit about Prism). The then-current Teenage Dream persona is presented as the Katy Perry Katy Perry always wanted to be, if she had only had the freedom. But what makes that Katy more Katy than any previous Katy? How can we trust this movie when Perry’s entire persona, built on “being yourself,” is so clearly a fiction? Every frame of this film is performative. There’s no way Perry isn’t acutely aware of the cameras at every moment. And of course, it’s shot, edited, and released by her PR team. There are so many layers of construct in this film - personas within cartoonish brace-mouthed personas - it’s near-impossible to tell what the real real Katy Perry is like. Uncritical fans may leave satisfied that they’ve seen the truth, but in reality they’ve only been led into another level of the labyrinth.
In the film, Perry denies being a “puppet”. And I think she’s totally right to do so - far from being a record company pawn, my impression is that she’s entirely complicit in the manufacture of the Katy Perry brand. Reading between the lines, you see a religious, traditional, uptight person, begrudgingly putting on a face that completely exhausts her. And that’s okay! That’s what show business is. But with each scene of Perry either letting us in or shutting us out, the songs feel that much more forced, the glitter that much more cosmetic. It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist drowning in a mire of her own creation, hidden under an upbeat PR puff piece.
But it’s a movie made for the fans - the crazed, hyperventilating fans that form a significant portion of the movie. This is an unabashed piece of myth-building, and mythic figures can’t exist without people to mythologise them. Through onscreen tweets and video messages, the film builds Perry up as a figure beloved the world over, capable of solving all personal problems with a song. We meet a lot of the young misfits that make up Perry’s fan base over the course of the movie, and though some are creepily or even psychotically obsessed, it’s hard to fault most of the fan base for toeing the party line. Katy Perry’s music genuinely brings happiness to these people. Which is good, because in Part of Me they serve as tools to feed that happiness back onto other fans. Like fans at a concert, the movie and its audience are a feedback loop of shrieking adoration for a figure who’s probably tired of them. And hot diggity damn, is it riveting to watch.
Katy Perry: Part of Me contains a number of sly, revealing touches that almost suggest the filmmakers subtly putting one over on Perry. The best of these is an image worthy of Spinal Tap that sums up the unique blend of honesty and falsehood the movie’s peddling. It’s a “candid” shot of Perry, ostensibly reeling from her breakup with Russell Brand, waiting beneath the stage for a little elevator to take her up to do a show. She’s desperately trying to hold back the tears, either mugging for or despising the camera, while the sparkly discs on her boobs spin, uncaring. All the while, standing in the background of the shot is a stage tech, completely undercutting the mood by visibly not giving a shit. Then Katy Perry, popstar, puts on a fake smile and heads out to sing some songs.
That? That’s fucking showbiz, right there.