Sunday, February 19, 2017

Britney Ever After (Asylum Entertainment, Front Street Pictures, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Britney Ever After was a heavily hyped “world premiere” on Lifetime of a film based, as one might suspect from the title, on the life and career of Britney Spears. One wonders why anybody would think the world needed a biopic of Britney Spears, but whatever management team is handling her these days has managed to create an image for her of unparalleled success, saying she’s sold over 100 million records. Her Wikipedia page was obviously written by someone in her organization because it’s a description of one overwhelming success after another, sort of like Donald Trump’s depiction of his own business record, and there’s only a passing nod to the bizarre set of acting-out behaviors in public that nearly sank her career and turned her into a national joke: “In 2007, Spears's much-publicized personal issues sent her career into hiatus. … Her erratic behavior and hospitalizations continued through the following year, at which point she was placed under a still ongoing conservatorship.” Needless to say, those “much-publicized personal issues,” “erratic behavior and hospitalizations” are the subject of this movie, written by Anne-Marie Hess but, alas, directed by Leslie Libman instead of her usual collaborator, Vanessa Parise.

The film begins with Britney’s parents, alcoholic father James Spears (Matthew Harrison) and domineering mother Lynne Spears (Nicole Oliver), driving across country from their native Louisiana (Spears was actually born in McComb, Mississippi — and Natasha Bassett, who plays her, uses a quite strong proletarian Southern accent — but her parents moved to Kentwood, Louisiana when she was three) to Florida for what’s supposed to be her big break: a chance to tour as opening act for the boy band ’NSync. There’s nothing of her background before that, including her stint on the Mickey Mouse Club when Disney tried to revive that franchise in 1992; indeed, the opening is shot deliberately to make Our Britney look like just another showbiz wanna-be instead of someone with one foot already in the door and the other on its way. Britney is flabbergasted by having a whole tour bus set aside for her and her entourage, which is mainly her parents and manager Larry Rudolph (Peter Benson), who at the time the film begins had already signed her to Jive Records and sent her out on a tour of shopping malls to promote her upcoming first album. During the tour with ’NSync she meets and falls in love with their lead singer, Justin Timberlake[1] (Nathan Keyes), but their relationship is on-and-off due to clashing schedules once she becomes big enough to headline — and also due to Britney’s fierce possessiveness: when she can’t get her man of the moment on the phone she mounts relentless attacks on his voicemail, becoming ever more desperate and pleading. (I remember watching a Grammy Awards telecast shortly after Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears broke up for good, and hearing him do a breakup song that was so bitter it sounded like he’d written it about her and the overall message was, “I’m glad I dumped that crazy bitch!”) The film kind of drones on and on as Britney responds to the breakup with an impulsive Las Vegas marriage to some guy (we only see him in bed with her and then in his underwear, as her parents and Rudolph tell him to go to the lobby of the hotel where they’re staying so they can get the marriage annulled) and then into another marriage with one of her backup dancers, Kevin Federline (Clayton Chitty), which lasts long enough for her to give birth to twin sons — though given the ferocity of her touring schedule it’s a wonder when she  could have carried a pregnancy to term without it interrupting things and getting noticed by her fans and the omnipresent paparazzi (Libman and Hess are particularly good at dramatizing this plague loosed on the famous) — though almost as soon as the kids are born Kevin walks out on her.

The film is framed as a documentary, supposedly being shot about Britney in 2008 and recounting her various performances at the MTV Video Music Awards — though the only people we see actually being interviewed for this film-within-the-film are Britney and her mom — and it recounts her “hell year” of 2007, in which her behavior becomes increasingly diva-ish and irresponsible. Not only does she suddenly and impulsively shave her head (leading her makeup people to have to glue “extensions” onto her scalp because it isn’t growing back fast enough to allow her to keep doing live gigs, video shoots, photo shoots and such), she starts doing wild rides through Hollywood with her girlfriend and at one point, being photographed in a borrowed red haute couture gown, she screams at everybody, tells Larry Rudolph he’s fired (and then, after she hits bottom, has to go to him hat-in-hand to rehire him), has a snack and then wipes her fingers on the dress, and finally tears out of the photo studio in it for yet another one of her wild rides. At one point she also starts assaulting the paparazzi with a tire iron (at least I think that’s what it was) — though given how relentless they’ve been in their pursuit of her this almost looks like legitimate self-defense — and eventually her parents, who had previously divorced each other over James’s drinking but reunite, if not as a full-on couple, at least as concerned parents, get her committed to a mental institution and force her to sign papers making them her legal guardians (just like when she was still a kid!). About the only usual item on the cliché list of stories about celebrities falling from the big-time this film doesn’t contain is drug use — she’s shown with one bottle of a prescription medication but it appears to be legitimately obtained and used — and it’s possible that in a movie that was already skating on the edge of legal thin ice (Britney Spears herself put out a statement that she had nothing to do with the project and was against this film being made) Libman, Hess and the producers avoided even the hint of drug abuse for fear Britney would sue them.

The fact that this is an unauthorized biography also seems to have prevented them from using any of Britney Spears’ actual trademark songs; though there are a few bits of funky dance music that sound more or less like Spears’ style, the only numbers Natasha Bassett gets to perform at length are three songs identified with others that the real Spears covered: the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” (which was actually a cover of a song recorded by a British band called the Arrows in 1975, and written by two of the Arrows’ members, Alan Merrill and the late Jake Hooker) and the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller “Trouble” which was written for Elvis Presley’s film King Creole. (The last comes from Britney’s famous breakdown on the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, where she sang a few bars of it, lost control of herself and then recovered with one of her own songs, “Gimme More” — but the film just leaves her hanging after the breakdown.) What’s really appalling about Britney Ever After is that it’s just boring: we’ve seen so many of these down-to-earth-kid-becomes-celebrity-loses-it-and-then-finds-it-again stories that it would take a lot to make one compelling again, and while the fall, comeback attempt and premature death of Whitney Houston (one of Britney’s idols when she was growing up, by the way) was a genuinely tragic story (great singer with a once-in-a-lifetime voice seems to have it all and blows it on drugs and a bad choice of man) that Lifetime screwed up, Britney Spears is simply too boring, and her problems too commonplace, to be of much interest. The Britney Spears Wikipedia page claims she has a three-octave (plus two notes above that) vocal range, but on the admittedly rare occasions I’ve heard her records she doesn’t sound like she has those kinds of vocal chops; indeed, I’d always assumed that her voice was largely manufactured by vocoders, auto-tune software and all the other gimcracks available now to turn someone who can’t sing into someone who kinda-sorta sounds like she can. (And even if Britney has a three-octave plus a tenth vocal range, she doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with it; Billie Holiday never had more than one octave plus a tenth, but my God, how she could break your heart with it!)

Britney Spears always struck me as a Madonna wanna-be — though whereas Madonna was already a grown woman when she started and honed an elaborate act that included dancers and elaborate stage effects to highlight both her own sexuality and our whole society’s ridiculous and contradictory attitudes towards sex in general, Britney started while she was still a teenager and her appeal was largely the pedophilic thrill of seeing someone at the cusp of the age of consent flaunt her body and her sexuality in such a precocious way. (Later Miley Cyrus, another refugee from the Disney reservation, would pull the same thing.) Madonna’s malign influence can be seen in all the overstuffed productions that clutter the world’s pop concert stages today — including Beyoncé’s ridiculously overwrought numbers at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show and the 2017 Grammy Awards — all the singers who think they need enough choristers to stage a coup in Central America, pyrotechnics, Cirque du Soleil-style performers flying over their heads (and in some cases, notably Pink’s, the stars themselves joining the Cirque du Soleil-style performers flying in the wings) and all the other crap all too many singers inflict on us because they don’t trust their voices to communicate without that garbage around them. (One reason I like Adele so much is she’s the total opposite of that: she stands on a bare stage, looking unglamorous, and projects the sheer power of that remarkable voice without drowning herself, her songs and her show in ludicrous pretension. She has a voice and she knows how to use it!!!) Britney Spears’ inexplicable popularity was originally quite obviously an offshoot of the Madonna phenomenon — when I first saw her on TV I thought, “Who needs a G-rated version of Madonna?,” and about her only transition was to stop trying to do a G-rated version and going all-out for the same sort of precocious sexuality and falling far short of her model. I was hoping that, even if Britney Spears the performer bores me, Britney Ever After might move me with the story of Britney Spears the human being — but it didn’t because everything about that woman, including her traumas, is just dull.

[1] — Actually they’d already known each other — they were co-stars on that ill-fated attempt to revive the Mickey Mouse Club — and this script drops a reference to them knowing each other since kindergarten, but the way their initial get-together as adults is filmed makes it seem like they’re meeting for the first time.