The trailer for Glitter, which I first saw while waiting for the start of Legally Blonde, elicited snickers and disbelief from the audience of preteen girls. They were prepared to believe that Reese Witherspoon could go from sorority bimbo to Harvard-trained lawyer in less than two hours, but incredulous at the thought of Mariah Carey acting the part of a pop diva who makes it big in New York.
In Glitter, Carey is Billie Frank, a club kid who dreams of someday singing at Madison Square Garden. The film follows her rise to super-stardom and her relationship with her DJ/producer/lover, Dice (Max Beesley), whose fame she quickly eclipses. Glitter is a vanity project that plays like a revisionist history of some aspects of Carey’s own career, reassembled for the most sympathetic spin. Strangely, Carey appears genuinely uncomfortable playing the role; even those amateurs on the WB’s Pop Stars exude more diva-esque charm. As someone who was largely ignorant of Carey’s rise to fame since the early 1990s, I expected her to possess some charisma in the role of Billie. Instead, Carey looks uncomfortable and puzzled.
Perhaps her confusion, as well as the audience’s, stems from the film’s attempt to create a bittersweet mythology out of Billie’s troubled childhood. The film hovers unconvincingly between melancholy and lightheartedness, both of which seem forced. The filmmakers clumsily attempt to connect Billie’s memories of a difficult childhood and her joyous embrace of stardom. The result is that the film is neither fun nor particularly heart-wrenching. Glitter begins with a mopey young Billie and her tragic African American mother, Linda (Valarie Pettiford), who showcases Billie’s talent during her own drunken performances in a smoky bar. Linda’s addictions to liquor and cigarettes lead to a tragic fire and Billie is removed to an orphanage, where she meets two friends who later become her back-up singers. She’s then haunted by the memory of being given up by her mother and the film includes a facile subplot about her search for information about the woman who never came, as promised, to rescue her from the orphanage.
The film moves quickly from teary scenes of Billie’s childhood to the grown-up version played by Carey, who is discovered in a nightclub and begins her rise to stardom. There are hints of tension between Billie’s desire to succeed on her own terms and her reliance on the powerful men around her who require her to exploit her sex appeal. Dice feels responsible for her success, mostly because he agrees to buy out her previous contract, as a back-up singer for a talentless star, from a shady producer (Terrence Howard). Dice keeps this transaction secret from Billie, and the film uses it to address the turf battles that go on behind the scenes in the apparently sordid world of pop music. The violence that results is out of place in Billie’s usually charmed world. For the most part, her helplessness amid the maelstrom of fame is played for laughs, especially in scenes with her overzealous publicist (played with off-kilter enthusiasm by cult artiste Ann Magnuson). At other times, it’s played for empty “poor little pop star” pathos.
It is unclear whom the filmmakers hoped might be fully enthralled by the silly melodrama of Glitter. The groups of preteen girls and their mothers with whom I saw the film on opening day talked noisily throughout. The TRL audience probably remembers Mariah most recently doing a bizarre striptease in front of a live studio audience and a puzzled Carson Daly. Indeed, I gathered from the comments of a couple of girls behind me that they had been lured to see the film because of Carey’s much-reported case of “exhaustion.” These girls were on Mariah Mental Health Watch, noticing accurately how the stars demeanor becomes droopier and more confused as the film progresses. The fact that this audience added running commentary could also lend Glitter a Showgirls-like afterlife, as campy midnight movie fare. This is accentuated by the fact that the film takes place in 1983 and capitalizes on the chance to dress its stars ridiculously. Although some of these trends might be beyond the target teen audience’s memory, the film does well to capitalize on the current trend of ‘80s nostalgia. Seeing Carey dance around in legwarmers and heels to Zapp and Rogers’ hits does have some appeal. Even this falls away upon realization that the film and its star are taking themselves too seriously to make even the over-the-top club scenes look like much fun.
All this begs the question: why is Mariah, who has been so inexplicably successful screeching her way to the top of the charts for almost a decade, suddenly turning to acting? Maybe Mariah has J. Lo envy. The ultimate pop multi-tasker, Lopez got one of her big breaks in Selena, a bio-pic that shares Glitter‘s cheesy effects and reliance on childhood flashbacks to tell the story of a girl who dreams of pop superstardom. While Selena’s story struck a chord with her thousands of mourning fans, Glitter‘s eventual success or failure might rest upon circumstances far beyond the film itself. It is one story set in New York City that fell underneath the radar of the Hollywood frenzy to axe projects that remind viewers too much of the horrible events that ravaged Manhattan. A view of the Twin Towers was one of the many images of the city that flashed on the screen at random moments, eliciting a collective and very audible sigh of sadness that transcended the film itself. The film’s depiction of an ecstatic New York City might be its only strength.