Bubble machines, purple glitter tutus, multicolored glow sticks, chocolate kisses and glow-in-the-dark face-paint. The screening of the documentary concert flick Katy Perry: Part of Me hasn't even started yet, but things are already in full sparkle mode in the audience. As I slip on my pink-and-blue collector's-edition 3-D glasses, I figure I have a pretty good idea what's coming.
Like the Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus concert films before it, I assumed Katy Perry's would likely sport all the same celebrity-enhancing bits that have become part of this genre's template: lots of peeks at the "real" silliness that goes on backstage; insider interviews; an onslaught of footage of hyperkinetic fans; some genuinely feel-good interactions between fans and the star; boundlessly energetic rehearsal scenes; and, of course, plenty of concert footage featuring well-choreographed, perfectly staged performance numbers.
And with that set as my expectation, I wasn't disappointed one little bit.
Amid these upbeat, formulaic elements, however, there was something more. Unlike Justin and Miley before her, Katy is all grown up. And that fact alone leads this big-screen concert doc in some directions I wasn't expecting.
Weird Is OK
The movie begins with a mash-up of concert prep scenes and videos of fans praising Katy for helping them see that being "weird is OK." Meanwhile, flashback clips of a much younger Katy, shown in home-movie reels and her own video footage, provide a quick cinematic splash of history.
It all began when the now 27-year-old singer was just a little girl tagging along with her traveling-minister parents. By the time she was 15, she had become a Christian musician. Then she had her "eyes opened" by exposure to secular songstress Alanis Morissette—a musical earful that motivated her to rebel against her parents' Pentecostal "super strictness." "We weren't allowed to eat Lucky Charms because 'luck' was of Lucifer," her younger brother says of their upbringing.
Elsewhere in that segment of Katy's history, we watch her dad preaching and hear quite a lot, actually, about Jesus bringing salvation to us all. And a bit later on, Katy affirms that she loves God and has a one-on-one relationship with Him, but admits that she doesn't necessarily embrace "the same details" as her parents' Christian faith.
From there, it's on to independence in L.A. and videos of an 18-year-old self-proclaimed "good girl gone bad" gushing that, "I'm living life for the first time, and it's exciting." A few years and missteps with record companies later and Katy, now 22, finally crystallizes her patented candy-cane-and-cleavage persona and makes it big with the breakthrough hit "I Kissed a Girl." With that, whoosh, we're back in the midst of her California Dreams Tour, an event she's convinced at first is her "childhood dream come true."
Divorce, Not So Much
Here's where the grown-up part of the story comes into play. For while this concert film is intended to light up Katy Perry with a sparkling spot, to celebrate her huge success (including a second album that netted a record-tying five No. 1 singles), and to give fans an "I'm right there onstage" point of view, it also captures something else: Cameras are standing by as the singer's celebrity marriage to English actor and comedian Russell Brand falls to pieces.
And she lets them keep rolling.
In the midst of a grueling yearlong concert schedule, we see the singer repeatedly taking the few days she has free to fly off and spend as much time as possible with her husband. It's all in an attempt to "keep my marriage alive," as she tells the camera. But as the tour grinds on we learn (from Katy's tears, mostly) that their union is unraveling. Those exhausted, weepy moments demonstrate how difficult it is to manage the inevitable tension between superstardom and faithful matrimony.
"I'm a romantic and I believe in the whole fairy tale," she tells us. "Love is a dream, but the reality is making it work. I did everything I could, but it's still failed." To her credit, Katy recognizes that marriage is about sacrifices and compromises, both of which the film depicts her making. And in another candid moment, the songstress adds, "I thought to myself, 'When I find that person that's going to be my partner, I won't ever have to choose. They won't be threatened or have weird motives.' Then I started to realize, that's not true for me right now."
Regarding her decision not to airbrush these difficulties, as she might have been tempted to do, Katy told MTV, "The truth will always prevail. Everything has to be handled integrously and appropriately, and it's not nice to air all your dirty laundry, because it stinks, so I had to be very delicate with the situation, but I couldn't avoid the elephant in the room."
These vivid moments are poignant and moving as Katy chokes back tears and searches for a smile, even as a small elevator hoists her onto a stage in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. These moments lift what would otherwise have been an exercise in clichéd concert moviemaking to an unexpected and thought-provoking level.
Of Bubbles and Rainbows and Glitter Girls (Kissing)
That said, there are other elements that pull the movie in a more provocative direction. Topping the list: the lyrics to many of Katy Perry's songs. When we see, for example, braces-clad tween girls merrily chirping, "I kissed a girl, and I liked it," it's a good time to ask what sort of influence she's having on her fans.
She says, "My goal is to make people smile" and for them to have "a heart full of hope and happiness" because of her music. A few songs, such as the upbeat affirmation anthem "Firework," accomplish that purpose without undermining it. (At least in this context. The song's music video, which we deal with in our track review, isn't so circumspect.) But when Katy sings about wanting to see her man's "peacock" or about inviting a guy to "put your hands on me" or "sipping gin and juice," I can't help but wonder how those suggestions could affect the scores of young girls who idolize her.
More songs than not in the film, such as "California Gurls," "Last Friday Night (TGIF)," "I Kissed a Girl," "Teenage Dream," "E.T." and "Peacock," wink at—or flat-out embrace—sexual experimentation and reckless indulgence. And even though the music is all prettified with bubbles, rainbows and "Katy Cat" choreography, it's pretty sleazy stuff when you take a closer, critical look at what she's actually saying.
Lyrics like those mingle with sensual imagery onstage, whether it's Katy's eye-popping array of costumes that accentuate her curves and cleavage (including outfits that feature spinning whirligigs and tassels on her breasts) or her retinue of skimpily attired dancers executing suggestive choreography. We also glimpse a group of Japanese men in imitative drag and hear a smattering of profanities (about 10 uses of "oh my god," a handful of uses each of "a‑‑," "d‑‑n," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑", and one bleeped s-word).
Follow the Leader?
"I kind of want to be a leader, but then there's all this responsibility," Katy says in a video clip when she was just 18.
She obviously takes that responsibility very seriously when it comes to meeting her fans and wholeheartedly seeking to encourage them. And Katy's clearly learned a great deal—in a hard, painful way—when it comes to the harsh realization that life doesn't always have a fairy-tale ending.
In these areas, it's virtually impossible not to like a young woman who's overcome so many setbacks as she's pursued her dream of musical success.
Still, if Katy Perry's personal life hasn't always been a fairy tale, neither is her if-it-feels-good-do-it prescription for earthly bliss likely to lead fans to the happily-ever-after endings that her songs so breezily promise.