It seems every competition that I get my elements done earlier and earlier and there’s all this music playing and there’s sexy Latin music and I never know what to do. So I either wipe my nose or bop my hip, and today I felt like touching myself and do a little head bop.
“Johnny’s scandalous! Don’t listen to anything he says.” Sasha Cohen stands beside fellow figure skater Johnny Weir as she offers this caution, their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, his eyes scanning the crowd, her phone in her ear. Smiling broadly, they’re striking poses on a celebrity receiving line, artfully distracted and determinedly unserious.
Brief and awfully cute, the scene sets a tone for Pop Star on Ice, a documentary following Weir’s struggles and successes, on and off ice. Opening theatrically in January, the film serves as well as an introduction to a Sundance Channel series. While the show gestures toward “reality” — with Weir’s own direct addresses, interviews with coach Priscilla Hill and mom Patti, road trips with best friend Paris Childers, and lots of practice and competition footage. Plainly used to performing himself, Weir treats the camera as a kind of co-conspirator, putting on show after show. He confesses and cajoles, he pouts and prevails. And then he does it again.
The film presents three-time U.S. National Figure Skating champion Weir‘s career to date via a cutely nonlinear timeline. He was inspired as a child in rural Pennsylvania, he reports, by watching Oksana Baiul at the 1994 Olympics. “That was my superstar,” he gushes. “She had a sparkle in her eyes that was so different from any other skater that was on TV at that time.” This premise, the inextricable entwining of skating and TV, is not new, certainly, but it is generational. Where earlier skaters might have been moved to see themselves as athletes, dancers, and/or competitors, Weir sees himself as a “pop star.” (The titular phrase is actually uttered here by designer Richie Rich, enthusing about Weir’s decision to walk in the 2006 Heatherette Fashion Show, accepting his and Traver Rains’ invitation: “He totally goes to the next extreme, it’s not only his art and athleticism, it’s his personality.”) And if such self-understanding is not unique, Weir’s version of it is aptly elusive, part earnest and part faux.
In this, Weir appears to understand the skating “game” as well as anyone. For all the suggestion that he’s somehow not working up to his potential, that his wild and “natural” skill must be disciplined before he can achieve his frequently asserted goal, an Olympic championship. That he’s not precisely fixed on this goal at all public moments makes Weir something of an anomaly in his universe: as rival Evan Lysacek puts it in the film, “What he does is his own business. I don’t do what he does.”
What he does, again and again, is deliver remarkable performances. Some of these win medals, others inspire awed or nasty (sometimes homophobic) commentary. As he and Hill work through a professional and personal relationship that has lasted for over a decade — that is, all of his skating life (he started at the late age of 12) and much of his 25 years on the planet — their rhythms are uneven, urgent and intimate, but also increasingly repetitive. Neither puts a finger on why he falls short of the medals he seeks, but both believe the ultimate achievement remains possible. (By the end of Pop Star on Ice, Weir has left Hill and started with a new coach, Ukrainian-born Galina Zmievskaya: the decision is difficult, as Johnny observes, “It’s really hard to tell Priscilla, ‘I’m leaving you.’ It’s like breaking up with your mother.”)
Pop Star on Ice appears to grant Weir control over his self-presentation, but most every image asks you to consider the ways fiction and reality intersect. In figure skating, the very concept of authenticity shifts by definition. Weir renames himself in a mock interview scene, playing his favorite “Russian” persona, in blond wig and in a bathtub. Here he speaks with Paris, seeking an explanation of Johnny Weir, in particular his tendency to conjure controversy, and indeed, to get on TV. “He just needs to get his act together,” pronounces Paris. “I think it’s great that he has people talking about the things he says.” To illustrate, the film offers up a series of “things he says,” from his comparison of one of his programs (“lyrical,” like drinking cognac) to a rival’s (“His is more the vodka shots, let’s snort coke kind of thing”) to things he doesn’t say (“Who I choose to go to bed with, that’s personal”). “I don’t need to see a prima ballerina on the ice,” complains skating analyst Mark Lund. The film cuts to Weir, Hello Kitty pillow beside him on his sofa, then interacting with his “angels,” a flock of female fans who extol his “honesty” and the fact that he’s “not superficial.”
While USFS executives dismiss his press conference remarks to ask reporters to focus on the competitions (which is not to say these are any less flamboyant, inexplicable, or questionable: it is, as Weir points out, a famously subjective “sport”). Scott Hamilton argues that what Weir does for cameras outside the rink is not the industry’s concern: “Business is business. What you put down on the ice, that’s your product.” But of course, like every other athletic enterprise — amateur or professional — the endgame is money, and money is made in a range of performances, expressly artificial and angling for sincerity, for multiple audiences. The film and the Sundance series explore and exploit exactly that.