Tears, Fears, and Mariah Carey

As 60-some million tv viewers know, the 21 September telethon, America: A Tribute to Heroes, was a singular event. For one thing, as critics have noted more than once, it was unusually “tasteful,” with simple sets decorated only with candles, with performers taking a uniformly careful and sober tone. For another, it was simulcast on multiple channels and raised some $150 million for victims of 11 September. And for still another, the show featured a slew of mostly middle-American-appealing movie stars and musicians, giving unsensational performances to no applause. Fred Durst may have been the exception with regard to this generational “appeal,” but the Limp Bizkit frontman was, as he has been in all his recent appearances, subdued. These days, breaking stuff isn’t as fun as it used to be.

Heavily promoted as “an unforgettable and uplifting evening filled with music, memories, hope, and inspiration,” the tribute was indeed mostly music, with the movie stars offering brief comments or quotations (perhaps most memorably, Will Smith introduced America’s newly designated “best-loved Muslim,” Mohammad Ali). A couple of days before the airdate, Mariah Carey’s name was added to the list of performers, marking her return to public view following her much-reported breakdown in August. And I confess that, when she came on stage to sing “Hero,” her eyeshadow gold and glamorous, her black dress elegant and, well, snug, I caught myself wanting her to do well.

She did fine, delivering a solid, unspectacular performance in support of the worthy cause. For all her public traumas, the girl can sing. Personally, I was glad that she didn’t do all that extra stuff she’s so found of, the multiple-syllabling and the high-note-hitting. And so what if she did try too hard during Willie Nelson’s closing sing-along version of “America the Beautiful,” scatting awkwardly and intrusively? She was there to prove that she was a trooper and a star, that she could be a team player, that she was back on her feet, that she could keep her clothes on.

A few weeks ago, you’ll recall, Mariah was unable to manage any of these things. Way back before 11 September, Mariah’s meltdown was “news. You may remember those days, when media couldn’t get enough of stories about Ben Affleck’s alcoholism and Gary Condit’s infidelity. Now, after 11 September, it’s embarrassing and frankly depressing to think anyone paid attention to such trivia, watched Access Hollywood for news on her condition, “tensions” between her and rival Jennifer Lopez or ex-husband Tommy Mottola, and rumored liaisons with “rappers.” And imagine, someone was laughing at those late night tv jokes about her “extreme exhaustion,” her bizarre striptease on TRL, and the plaints she posted late at night to her website: “I don’t know what’s going on in my life.” Such drama.

And yet, because Carey had for so long acted like an out-of-touch diva, the press typically treated such behavior as just part of the deal, maybe a little ridiculous, but “good” copy. Now, the same behavior looks infinitely sad. And now, the packaging of that same nonsense as “plot” in Glitter, a.k.a. Mariah’s First Movie, also looks sad.

As it happened, Glitter opened on the very day Carey appeared on America: A Tribute to Heroes. It was the only big studio movie to open wide that weekend, as most studios rescheduled releases to suit a proper mourning period. Perhaps Mariah’s people felt they couldn’t afford another postponement (the movie had been pushed back once already, following The Breakdown). Or perhaps they believed that, given the film’s lousy pre-release buzz, they would avoid competition and just get the thing out and over with. Whatever their reasoning, the unfortunate timing made Friday a strangely weighted day for Carey. All of a sudden, there she was, the one-two Mariah punch.

Stranger still: so brave and determined was she to get “back out there,” that Mariah Carey even made an appearance at a Westwood theater to watch the film with fans. In this brutal business, no one does this so publicly, for obvious reasons of self-preservation. But, there she was. According to SonicNet, Carey smiled a lot, signed copies of the movie soundtrack cd, and spoke to interviewers outside the theater, asserting her hope that moviegoers would find some pleasant distraction in Glitter. She thanked her fans for their support and observed, by way of explanation for The Breakdown, “I tend to work myself to the ground like a superhero.” She added, “Obviously nothing can overshadow the events that have gone on, and I need to stay focused on that.”

The fact that most people have indeed stayed focused on that, the unspeakable that, is one good reason why Glitter had a terrible opening weekend. Another reason is that it’s a bad movie, even taking into account that it’s primarily a star vehicle. At some point, someone probably had high expectations for the project. Obviously, Mariah is humungously popular, despite and because of her diva rep and her multimillion dollar Virgin Records contract. And there are quality names attached to the production end of it — the screenplay was written by Kate Lanier (who wrote Set It Off, What’s Love Got to Do With It, and okay, okay, The Mod Squad), and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall (who made the excellent Gridlock’d). Still, it seems clear, looking at the finished film, that the signs of its badness must have been everywhere.

The most obvious sign of Glitter‘s misguidedness is its reported basis in Carey’s own life story, filtered through A Star is Born and any number of tragic show-biz biopics. Carey’s rags-to-riches character, Billie Frank, first appears as a young girl (played by Isabel Gomes), trying to go unnoticed in the low-rent bar where her boozy mother Lillian (Valarie Pettiford) sings the blues. When the audience razzes mom, she brings the girl on stage to bail her out. And as her mother stumbles back, clutching her ice-clinky drink, Billie emerges as the spotlight hog she’s destined to be, belting out a tune like nobody’s business. Or rather, like somebody specific’s business — Mariah Carey’s.

A few scenes later, mom sets the house on fire and hands Billie over the state (the search for her mom will trouble the poor girl for the rest of the film, though the fact that she becomes a super-visible celebrity, thus making it quite easy for her mother to find her, seems to be lost on the plot’s sentimental illogic). Literally, as soon as Billie walks in the orphanage door, Billie meets the girls who will become her lifelong friends and backup singers, Roxanne (who will grow up to be Tia Texada, in an embarrassing “hot Latina” turn) and Louise (Da Brat, who also guests in Carey’s awful “Loverboy” video, driving a race car while she raps and a short-shortsed Mariah cavorts on the track). These girls are the only characters who ask about Billie’s racial identity (her melancholy mom is black, her dad a selfish white guy who rejects them out of hand). Billie informs her new friends that she’s “mixed,” and that’s the last you hear about it, though you’d think it would be quite important concern for Billie, given that she’s living in disco-era NYC. Just why the film is set in the 1980s is not clear either, except maybe, that it occasions the wearing of many horribly dated little-girly-meets-drag-queen costumes (Roxanne’s are particularly unflattering).

Perhaps because she wears pigtails and a baseball cap with her shorts, Billie’s career as a back-up singer is soon over, and she’s got the attention of all kinds of men who want to produce her. First, the too-smooth Timothy (Terrence Howard, unfortunately making a habit of playing 2D villains), who has her doing vocals for his lipsync-ing girlfriend; and second, the too passionate Dice (Max Beesley, one of the least charismatic, most uncomfortable actors I’ve seen in some time). He offers to make her a star and buy out her contract with Timothy — without telling her that he’s doing it, and without paying Timothy the $100,000 he’s promised him.

All this comes back to bite Dice when Timothy comes to collect and busts him to Billie. By this time, though, Dice is already on thin ice with his girl, as his mounting jealousy of her success has led him to drink, yell, and haul her out of a party (away from romantic rival Eric Benet) and off a video set. This last takes place during a strange scene where the euro-trashy video director is so fixated on his “brilliant” concept (“Sex sells!”) that he apparently doesn’t notice his star’s absolutely terrible performance. Ostensibly, she’s embarrassed to be wearing a bikini, but… come on. She is Mariah Carey, and besides, there’s not a scene in the film where Billie isn’t wearing some skimpy or otherwise tediously sexed-up costume.

This kind of tonal schizophrenia pervades Glitter. On one side, the barebones of the plot are just tedious: Billie and Dice break up and almost make up, he pays a predictable terrible price, and she is emphatically not Mrs. Norman Maine, though she makes a stoic stand and sings a sad song just the same, telling her screaming fans assembled at Madison Square Garden, “Don’t ever take anybody for granted, because you never know when you might lose them and you’ll never see them again.” (This cheesy moment — and presumably not the faulty grammar — drew gasps from the audience with whom I saw the film, not because of the film’s context, but because everyone there had another, immediately pressing and painful notion of loss in mind.)

On the other side, of course, the narrative falderal is just irrelevant. Whatever the reasons for the film’s existence and Carey’s general career overdrive — to keep up with J. Lo and Britney and whoever else is coming down the pike, to keep her visible and moving units, to appease the diva, or to expand her already considerable talents — the offscreen costs are obviously too high. Roundly assailed by critics, the movie is not going to pay off as hoped. Even the soundtrack is falling below Virgin’s big-money expectations, entering Billboard’s chart at number 7. That Carey’s a weak actor may not matter in the grand scheme (persistence counts: Madonna eventually got Evita, for whatever it was worth). But the fact that she and her crew picked such a deficient vehicle for her suggests that they’re all needing to refocus, on something, anything, meaningful and productive.

What such meaningful focus might be or lead to is a question that many of us are asking ourselves now. We don’t have to look for it in front a bijillion other people, but, ironically, our ability to stay private, to mourn and rage and submerge/refind ourselves in too much or too little work only makes Mariah Carey’s “superheroic” tears and fears seem more representative, not less. I’m certainly not suggesting that Mariah Carey’s career and personal troubles be read in conjunction with the gargantuan violence and horror erupting all around us. The connections among these events are tenuous and coincidental, surely not deep or even very clear.

Maybe I’m just trying to sort out why I was moved by Carey’s performance on America: A Tribute to Heroes, why I was glad to see that she looked less frazzled than I expected. Part of my surprise at my own reaction, I confess, is that I was never a Mariah fan before. I don’t own one of her albums, and have always regarded her as something of an anachronism, even when she was “hot,” however many years ago that was. And yet, I sympathized with her, and appreciated her work that night. Even people who are obviously better equipped emotionally (or who have friends and associates who are better equipped) to deal with the legendary “vagaries of fame” have a hard time in Carey’s business.

And beyond my not-very-personal investment in Mariah’s professional and mental health, I am struck by her obvious fragility and stubborn resilience, her rawness and her weirdness. As irrelevant as she’s always seemed to me, she has been very relevant to everyone who has bought her records and posters and keychains. Their relationship to her is theirs, and they are generous to share it with each other and the rest of us. They want her back, for their own good reasons. Seeing her perform on Friday night reminded me that recovery — as public as this difficult process has become in recent days — is a very private thing, no matter all the rhetoric to the contrary.