No Business Like Show Business August 4, 2020
On On the Record and Showbiz Kids, both on HBO Max
Weinstein and other predatory Hollywood men that October because, she says, she didn’t want to weigh the idea of coming forward. And as a Black woman, she wasn’t sure if the then-nascent #MeToo movement applied to her. The bulk of accusers, at least in the show-business sphere, were well-established white actresses.
But then director Brett Ratner came up as a figure who abused his power, frequently in tandem with Simmons. Then Dixon read screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s open letter in the Hollywood Reporter detailing an assault by Simmons. Then she heard Beverly Moore talk about being sexually
assaulted by the politician Roy Moore when she was a 16-year old girl at a press conference held in her hometown. And then Dixon read the actor Harold Perrineau’s statement about his daughter Aurora’s sexual assault while she was shooting the TV show Girls (2012-2017). In the latter missive, Perrineau referred to Aurora as a warrior. And Dixon thought to herself: “I’d like to be a warrior — I’ve been a victim for 22 years.” So she decided to talk with New York Times reporters Joe Coscarelli and Melena Ryznik about it. The resulting article, which shared the stories of Dixon and two other alleged victims of Simmons, came out that December. To date, some 20 women have accused the magnate of sexual misconduct.
In On the Record (2020), a powerful new HBO documentary about Simmons’ purported abuses, Dixon is used as a sort of main character device by director-producers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. We follow her as she begins the process of going public; several scenes show her on the phone with Coscarelli. She is the first person we see in the movie — rummaging around in her apartment looking for an early Junior M.A.F.I.A. demo to show off to the filmmakers. The movie watches closely and sympathetically
as she speaks, elatedly, of her coming of age, and then, eventually, of her getting hired as a Def Jam executive in the early ‘90s, just barely after graduating from Harvard in 1992.
A pit rests in our stomach as Dixon relays her early days: the chasm between the still-intense initial excitement and what we know will soon happen is great. Dixon made major strides while at Def Jam. You have her to thank for the Mary J. Blige and Method Man duet “I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By” (she encouraged Method Man to expand the one-time interlude into a full-length song) and the chart-topping compilation album The Show. She resigned after having had enough of Simmons' alleged near-inescapable abuses.
Dick and Ziering’s use of Dixon as the film’s quasi-protagonist is both a strong asset and a flaw. On the one hand, it creates an immediate emotional resonance. We get to know Dixon in a way documentaries of On the Record’s caliber cannot always manage, given their reliance on several brief talking-head interviews plaited carefully to create a streamlined narrative. Dixon was unmistakably an industry figure with sui-generis good instincts; our hearts sick, we can only speculate (as several industry people in the documentary do) how music might have evolved had she not left the industry. Reid, in addition to being an alleged abuser, also unbelievably rejected both Kanye West and John Legend — two musicians in whom Dixon rightly saw something and tried hard to champion, to no avail. When Reid dismissed them, Dixon made sure to tell them that while they might not have a future with Arista, they undoubtedly would have one elsewhere. Who else might Dixon have discovered, and, had she had a platform more congenial than Arista, lifted up into stardom?
The focus on one person also cannily mirrors the way a sexual-assault survivor might feel alone in her victimization. As we watch Dixon realize that it wasn’t just her who was allegedly attacked by Simmons, you can almost feel the film expanding. It’s tangible to us how Dixon had virtually been destroyed, prompted to turn inward — it’s excruciating. We see her recount her painful line of thinking before coming forward: remembering how Anita Hill and Desiree Washington had been treated when they shared accounts of sexual misconduct by influential men; knowing that even though her being a victim was important, too, she would also be obliquely letting people down. “He’s Russell Simmons,” she emphasizes. “He’s the king of hip-hop...I didn’t want to let the culture down. I love the culture; I loved Russell, too.” She thought about how even though a sexual-assault survivor isn't responsible for the crime committed against them, it is often the victim, not the perpetrator, who becomes associated in the public eye with this aura of vileness, squalidness. “It was like pressing play on a movie I paused 22 years ago at the scariest part,” she says at one point about coming forward.
On the other hand, in putting so much more focus on Dixon — and eventually, but less meticulously, on other survivors like erstwhile Def Jam executive Sil Lai Abrams and rapper Sherri Hines (Lumet appears briefly at the end of the film) — the movie inevitably undercuts at least part of its ultimate intention: to give these abuses a greater light of day. In favoring this more intimate framework, other accounts get obfuscated by design. Abrams, who meets up with Dixon and Lumet after their allegations receive notoriety, notes that they might have it easier as the most high-profile accusers — specifically, they are more likely to be believed — because they are also conventionally attractive, light-skinned Black women. The film doesn’t grapple with how it obliquely contributed to this suggestion of some voices being welcomed but not others, as Abrams alludes to. It’s dismaying when, in the last few minutes of the movie, several other women get the opportunity to talk about their experiences but only fleetingly. It felt to me that they deserved more than a flickering spotlight, and that the movie could have benefitted from more expansive gazes outward.
On the Record additionally provides extensive context around the misogyny ingrained in so much of hip-hop, both musically and in the culture which uplifts it. Insights on this, sexual misconduct and how it uniquely affects Black women, and other histories and analyses are provided by figures including culture critic Bim Adewunmi, activist Tarana Burke, writer and theorist Joan Morgan, Ebony figurehead Kierna Mayo, and others. It’s illuminating, and makes clearer to viewers less comprehensively educated about the hip-hop industry how Simmons might move with impunity for so long. (And continues to: still not having faced his alleged crimes, Simmons has extricated himself to Bali, surrounded by a sect of apparently adoring women.) Dick and Ziering, both white, do some undermining of the offered analyses, though, when subsequently pointing out that myriad genres have cultures of misogyny. While undeniably true, in unnecessarily broadening the scope this analogizing comes across to us as a subject change in place of further necessary scrutiny.
Of course, a 95-minute-long movie with such significant aspirations can’t thoroughly cover everything it invokes. Not all of Simmons’ accusers, understandably, will be comfortable going into detail about what has happened to them, especially not in front of the camera. But there can be a feeling of elision in On the Record. The title of the film in effect takes on another meaning because, again, there is a sense that some women are not being given a chance to, well, go on the record. As flecked with reservations as this review is, though, they shouldn’t suggest that On the Record is in some way not a vital document — and an emotionally cogent and steadily enrapturing one at that. Even if Dick and Ziering’s approach has some kinks, this is a persuasive, potent documentary — a case where the effect of a film ultimately trumps the execution of it.
Drew Dixon in On the Record.
were coming to the fore in droves. She remembers this period so vividly because these stories — harrowing accounts from women of sexual misconduct perpetrated by men in power — were familiar to her. In 1995, when she was a 24-year-old A&R executive at Def Jam Records, Dixon alleges that she was raped by its founder, Russell Simmons, following a long period of sexual harassment. Years later, when she moved on to Arista Records, Clive Davis’ successor, L.A. Reid, allegedly sexually harassed her, too. These experiences led Dixon to leave the music industry entirely in the early aughts. She decided to pursue a Master’s degree. She met her now-ex-husband in class and had some kids with him. She tried to forget her past.
Dixon didn’t want to read the articles about
he life of a child was not my life.” So says 101-year-old Diana Serra Cary at the beginning of Showbiz Kids (2020), another new documentary available to stream on HBO Max. When the late Cary was 2
years old, her parents decided that the inchoate movie industry might have a place for their daughter. They thrust her into an acting career. An early title card in the movie, which is directed by child actor turned filmmaker Alex Winter, stresses that "every year, over 20,000 child actors audition for roles in Hollywood. Ninety-five percent of them don't book a single job." This wasn’t the case for Cary in 1920. Between 1921 and ‘23 alone, she starred in 150 short movies, and was known to the public as “Baby Peggy.” She arguably made Shirley Temple, Jackie Cooper possible. When she was growing up, Judy Garland played with a doll designed in Cary's image. Then, suddenly, everything was cut short for the latter by her father, when he decided that she wasn’t going to work anymore following a monetary dispute with her studio. Cary never reaped any of the benefits of her work — instead her parents did — and, for years, she struggled financially.
Cary’s formative experience functions as sort of an urtext in Showbiz Kids, which examines the psychological perils of child acting. The movie comprises in-depth interviews with Evan Rachel Wood, Gary Cole, Jada Pinkett Smith, Wil Wheaton, Mara Wilson, and the late Cameron Boyce. It also follows a couple of current hopefuls — one of whom yawns during his private acting classes and eventually admits that he would prefer a comedy career to acting full time. (His eager mother emphasizes that she’s not like other stage moms — she lets him do karate, for instance — but you can tell just how disappointed she’d be if her son confessed that he didn’t want to audition for stuff anymore.)
Showbiz Kids doesn’t reveal much that we don’t already know: that children in the industry do not uniformly have the capacity, starting off, to differentiate between work and play; that puberty, when you’re a child actor, usually proves doubly devastating to one’s self-esteem (make sure to not read critic reviews, either); that often, when you go from experiencing constant adulation to an inevitable decline in popularity, the hunger for the same energy can prove destructive when paired with one’s coming of age. Winter does not include the perspectives of historians and journalists, like On the Record savvily does, to provide more insight into systemic problems. There is a bit of insularity to the film — there’s some echo-chamberism going on. There are some invocations of the problem of child sexual abuse in the industry — something Winter himself suffered — though this isn't too deeply examined.
The movie is most engaging when actors whose experiences we aren’t as familiar with are brought to the center. Wood notes that she knew she was talented growing up, and that even though she would have rather played with dolls in her spare time, she knew that people would conflate her wanting to do normal-child activities with waste. Boyce, who died at the age of 20 last year from epilepsy-related complications, said it hurt him knowing that his sister’s peers almost exclusively thought of her as Cameron Boyce’s Sister rather than her own person while he was starring on the Disney Channel show Jessie (2011-‘15). And Milla Jovovich is disgusted now thinking about how much she was Lolita-fied as a teenager. But there isn’t too much fresh understanding one reaps from Showbiz Kids; it unfolds pretty much exactly how we might anticipate it to. One can hope that child stardom itself someday will not.
On the Record: B+
Showbiz Kids: C+