Glitter & Xanadu, Reviewed September 19, 2019
Reexamining two notorious critical and commercial bombs
campaign. To their eyes, it was something like activism. They again brought a hashtag that had long lay dormant — #JusticeforGlitter — to the mainstream.
Glitter, if you didn’t know already, is the name of a movie and soundtrack album Carey released in 2001. Both are notorious, and not with a positive connotation à la B.I.G. (who even got a “the” in front of the honorific) or Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The soundtrack was released on Sept. 11, 2001; the movie was put out a week later. (On the film’s Wikipedia page, featured is a photo of the Twin Towers burning behind a promotional billboard for the movie, on which Carey, backed by hot pink and sparkles, grins ecstatically at nothing in particular.)
If the film were purely a flop, such would be
understandable. Even as a Carey fan (albeit a recently awakened fan) myself, I can’t quite fathom being in the mood to meet up with her at a theater in the wake of a terrorist attack, especially when the advertisements looked like that.
But, adding insult to injury, the film is also notorious for being bad, not just having bad timing. Perhaps, they say, it’s one of the worst movies of all time. “Glitter, the pop star Mariah Carey’s feature film debut, is mostly dross, an unintentionally hilarious compendium of time-tested cinematic clichés that illustrates the chasm between hopeful imitation and successful duplication,” Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times wrote. “Having gone through a few different titles on its ignominious path to the big screen, Glitter deserves yet another title: A Star Is Dull,” Variety’s Robert Koehler wrote, in the style of a Joan Rivers punchline, shortly after the premiere. The movie became a fixture during its year’s Razzies, the inverted Oscar-esque celebration for the year’s worst movies. It’s been discussed on How Did This Get Made? (2011-present), the great podcast series on which the comedians Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, and June Diane Raphael heartily discuss cinema’s biggest and usually also inadvertently funniest turkeys.
To be sure, Glitter is horrible. It’s an ever-familiar rise-and-fall, New York City-set Hollywood story so infested with hackneyed narrative movements and acting performances that after watching it for a while, I started wondering if this is just What Price Hollywood? (1932) by way of The Asylum, the independent film studio that strictly produces knock-offs of popular movies. (See 2006’s Pirates of Treasure Island, the ersatz refraction of the long-running Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; 2011’s The Amityville Haunting, which is just an upside-down-and-inside-out mirror image of The Amityville Horror, only somehow worse.) In Glitter, Carey stars as Billie Frank, a singer who goes from rags to riches in the 1980s under the tutelage of her controlling, usually black muscle shirt-clad DJ boyfriend (Max Beesley).
Part of me agrees that Glitter the movie and album deserve some justice. The feature is bad, but not aggressively, annoyingly so in the ways so many infuriatingly bad movies are. It's harmless. It's entertaining — a shinily and boisterously artificial soap opera that, if committed to the page, might otherwise be found in a discounted bookstore across the way, written by one of the writers of the Peyton Place books. The music is far better than it’s been given credit for. Though undoubtedly the nadir of Carey’s discography, with its quiveringly unconfident production and strained aesthetic dedication, my toes tapped whenever the most upbeat parts of it came to the fore, and my heart, during its ballads, did sometimes sink — a sign that what I was hearing wasn’t just passing through me like an apparition.
The 2018 popularization of #JusticeforGlitter called on fans to again purchase the soundtrack album for a couple of reasons: to rewrite history, which had painted Carey as an embarrassing, failed film star who should pretend like the debacle never happened; to get its ewe, who’d understandably avoided playing any songs from the Glitter soundtrack live, to reembrace something that had once been a source of mortification and a reminder of a time “that almost killed me,” as she recently told Pitchfork. The Lambily’s efforts paid off. The soundtrack reached number one, 17 years later, on the iTunes charts — a shock considering that, until recently, Carey’s most consistent echoes of her former commercial prosperity have arrived thanks to a holiday tradition. Carey herself was moved. “First of all, justice for Glitter!” she recently exclaimed at the beginning of a long live interview at Genius' headquarters.
Mariah Carey in 2001's Glitter.
’d avoided watching the movie for many years. It wasn’t because I’m averse to known-to-be-terrible movies. (In fact I more often than not love the categorically maligned more than the ever-boring class of "good" movies.) It was
more that, until my recent appreciation of Carey, I admittedly thought I'd never be able to adjust myself to her voice and persona. Her voice, not long ago, seemed to me this pointedly (and thus annoyingly) showy thing with a tendency to either be all soft and whispery in a forcedly soft-porny way or a full-on shriek, as if she were a dolphin in pain. The persona, which especially as of late visually emerges in the form of a decadent, mermaid-haired woman with a propensity for exaggeratedly luxurious sartorial displays and coos of “dawling” and “I don’t know her!,” was one I was fascinated by but didn’t want to spend extended periods of time with.
But then I was assigned to review Caution for my student newspaper. I worked hard to get myself familiar with Carey’s music and history. It was after obliquely hanging out with her that it all finally clicked. I suddenly loved the voice — it turned into this lovably deranged animal that, before all else, tacitly exclaimed, “I can sing!," before digging into emotionality. I also realized that Carey’s persona is fun. It's her simply borderline-satirically playing with diva clichés so hawkishly that they swelled up.
This experience of falling for Carey was my less-lyrical version of Zadie Smith’s Some Notes on Attunement, a 2012 remembrance in which the author discusses her experience going from someone who couldn’t stand the whistle-voiced singer Joni Mitchell to someone who, with snap-of-the-finger unexpectedness, grew so emotionally attached to the Canadian genius that she couldn’t “listen to Joni Mitchell in a room with other people, or on an iPod, walking the streets. Too risky.”
I suspect the reason I like Glitter, in spite of being persistently aware of its badness, is because of my love for Carey. Because I admire her feverishly and return to her music frequently, I can’t quite unleash the venom in me that I know might have been let loose even a year ago. Besides, it became clear to me while watching the film that Carey is the best thing about it. Her performing is more effective than you might expect it to be from someone who’d never really acted before and who was being supported by such platitude-dependent writing.
Not to invoke other pop stars who've made transitions into acting, but if you want an idea of what to expect of Carey here, think something hewing close to Beyoncé in Dreamgirls (2006) or Madonna in Dick Tracy (1990). Not everyone can be Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Carey’s work on the soundtrack is not to be sniffed at: it has the same delightful mixture of camp and dead-serious balladry as the most recent incarnation of A Star is Born (2018), which most people, by contrast, unabashedly adored. Culling from the film’s 1980s backdrop, the Glitter album is either so fast and synthy that I immediately thought of Rick James, though only in a parodistic sense, or so cornily electronic and slow that New Edition or Luther Vandross, who makes an appearance on the soundtrack (though not the actual Glitter album), came to mind. It’s an airless riot. Will non-fans continue being so unforgiving?
I could go on about how incompetently and witlessly Glitter has been directed by Vondie Curtis Hall. Just four years earlier, he’d made an auspicious feature debut with Gridlock’d. So you wonder: what happened? I could talk about how the movie appears to have been edited with a pair of gardening shears. Or how the transitions, which rapidly move about the streets of the film’s New York City setting, look like a collaborative effort between Microsoft PowerPoint and a fourth-grader giving a presentation on metropolitan life. And I could talk about how, in giving the misogynistic boyfriend character a tragic end, the film sort of excuses his misogyny. But I’d rather say #JusticeforGlitter, because, to quote one deranged Lambily member, Mariah!
he job held by Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), the emotionally put-out protagonist of 1980’s Xanadu, is a job that can only be held by heroes in bad movies or participants on House Hunters (1999-present). The
HGTV show, throughout its 20-year reign, has long had a running gag associated with it. Typically, either one or both parties in a couple will have a ridiculous, likely little-paying job — like an underwater basket-weaver or a dog costume-maker — but still express a need for a three-story Spanish-style house in the dead center of Manhattan, with a private patio to boot, for instance. Their budget is $10 million.
In Xanadu, Malone, an artist, paints album covers for a living. Not originals, though: giant recreations for window storefronts. It’s a booming business. He works with a surprisingly big team in a large studio. The group's draconian boss forbids it from evincing any sort of real creativity. Michael fortunately isn’t looking for a three-story Spanish-style house in the dead center of Manhattan with a private patio to boot, but he unfortunately wants to be creative, and therefore can’t stay stuck in a job so stifling of his god-given talents.
In Xanadu, the stuck-in-a-rutness will become even more of a test. Out of nowhere, Michael gets a muse, and not the invisible one many a creator gets acquainted with every once in a while. She’s an actual muse — an Australian woman who introduces herself to him as Kira (Olivia Newton-John) but in actuality is one of the Nine Muses of Olympus. (She, specifically, is Terpsichore, the goddess of dance and chorus.)
The plot of the movie is relatively insane. So is the way it’s directed, acted, shot. I won’t go into narrative or technical details, because there are many of them worth gawking at via the page and the feature is fun enough that it might as well be seen, not just read about. Though I can’t help but share that Gene Kelly, who doesn’t deserve this, plays an older character who gets involved in the action; that Kira and Sonny eventually fall in love; that by the end of the film the characters have worked together to create an I-guess-magical roller rink called Xanadu; that cinematographer Victor J. Kemper photographs the song-and-dance-heavy movie as if it was a static soap opera, which is to say he patently doesn’t know what the hell’s going on, or maybe even where he is. Or maybe he had amnesia at the time of production, and I'm being unwittingly cruel.
The aforementioned Glitter isn’t so bad it’s good; it’s just frivolously bad. But Xanadu, so shoddy it’s credited with essentially inventing the Razzies, is the kind of terrible you’ve got to check out. It's the crown jewel to the cinematic hall of infamy à la the "Mona Lisa" to the Louvre, "Night Watch" to the Rijksmuseum. This is a movie that makes you wonder why anyone thought a movie with a storyline like this and with visuals like this could ever be palatable to any mainstream audience member. It’s a spectacle that makes most of our takeaways end in question marks, our grins be rooted in bemusement more than unfiltered delight.
But strangest of all is that the dizzying “huh?”-ness of the film clashes with the soundtrack, which is legitimately good. It relies heavily on Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra, and both do impressive work. Newton-John’s ABBA aping keeps up the glimmer of ABBA’s gold (I at one point feared a descent into ABBA mold territories), and ELO’s futurist opera rock is pleasurable. I thought often of Queen’s work on Flash Gordon (1980), which almost definitely shouldn’t have worked but did anyway. If you cover your eyes and fast-forward the dramatic scenes, Xanadu is an inspired musical. But since that’s pretty labor-intensive, just listen to the soundtrack. Hit apply on Glitter, too.