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Glitter

(Vondie Curtis Hall, USA, 2001)


 


Glitter is one of those films dogged by bad word-of-mouth out of all proportion to its actual qualities and faults. It is too easy to dismiss as a formulaic, vanity project for Mariah Carey.

Writer Kate Lanier (What’s Love Got to Do With It?, 1993) has a knack for breathing life into the old clichés of rags-to-riches chronicles. Her stories of musicians’ lives are like good pop songs: vivid, economical, proudly corny.

Billie (Carey) is a wildly talented singer first noticed when her back-up vocals effortlessly upstage a talentless diva. Both love and success come Billie’s way when she hooks up with Dice (Max Beesley), a cool DJ. Their union must contend, however, with the machinations of the music industry.

The best part of Glitter is devoted to the New York dance scene of the early 1980s. Director Vondie Curtis Hall – doing a much better job here than in his execrable debut Gridlock’d (1997) – gives this context more spirit and authenticity than either The Last Days of Disco (1998) or 54 (1998) managed.

Likewise, glimpses into the milieux of video clip making and publicity (a splendid role here for cult performer Ann Magnuson) are amusing and well observed.

As Billie begins her upwardly mobile climb in the world of showbiz – and as the plot begins to more rigidly resemble that of A Star is Born (1954) – certain key details seem fudged. The film is frustratingly discreet when it comes to conveying the high-life of Dice and the low-life of Billie’s mother, Lillian (Valarie Pettiford).

Carey’s screen persona does not entirely coalesce. Her songs are an intriguing but odd mixture of streetwise roots, slick delivery and new age sentiment (the syrupy lyrics harp on "transcendence" and "closure"). Billie’s psychology remains similarly unfocused.

Nonetheless, this is a modestly enjoyable piece. Movies that are vehicles for singers hoping to cross over into acting often possess a special charm. Rather than being entirely seamless (why is seamlessness such an absolute aesthetic ideal?), they exhibit stars half in character, half out, always in some sense themselves. Especially when singers play singers – as in the masterpiece of this type, Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) – there is a slightly unpolished air which is refreshing, amateurish in the best sense.

Carey is a touching presence in Glitter – her occasional awkwardness, hesitancy and inscrutability ultimately serving well the presentation of Billie’s character and story.

© Adrian Martin November 2001


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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