Katy Perry: Part of Me may be the single biggest surprise of 2012. It’s not the candy-coated fluff piece many were no doubt expecting, but a spectacularly made, refreshingly candid documentary that takes its subject seriously and spends as much time tugging at the heartstrings as it does dancing to the beat.
This isn’t even a case where it’s correct to limit one’s recommendation to ‘the fans.’ I own Teenage Dream, but I’m no Perry aficionado, and I was riveted from beginning to end, moved by how Perry and her fans interact, entertained by the spirited concert footage, and impressed by the humility with which Perry’s life story is told. If ever there was a music documentary fit to sway the unconverted, it’s Part of Me. There’s obviously no way to influence one’s personal taste in Perry as a musician, but the film is so insightfully made that I can’t imagine anyone walking away without a positive opinion of the singer as a human being.
One of the smartest choices directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz make is to open with fan testimonials. In a short series of self-made videos, the film quickly establishes what Perry means to those who truly love her work, in a way that doesn’t feel self-congratulatory or disingenuous. On the contrary, we all know what it feels like to be so moved and inspired by a musician that we can barely express our enthusiasm; even if we don’t share in these peoples’ love for Katy Perry, we can empathize and respect that fervor. Part of Me does a beautiful job capturing that feeling from the very beginning. For the Katy-faithful, it’s all just preaching to the choir, but for viewers like me, it’s an insightful and essential moment that gives context to how the film views Perry. She isn’t portrayed positively just because the movie’s got her name on it, but because she has had a profoundly positive influence on her fans, and that’s an important distinction that defines how the movie operates.
For the most part, the film explores Perry’s life and career; the action is centered around the 2011 California Dreams world tour, and therefore features copious concert footage, but it flashes back to Perry’s childhood and the early, unsuccessful days of her career as well. That’s an awful lot of ground to cover, but the film moves with a brisk intensity, never spending too long on one point or shortchanging anything either. All the standard documentary tropes are here – talking-head interviews, home videos, backstage footage, etc. – but it’s extremely well assembled, and the footage shot by the filmmaking team looks wonderful (especially the highly imaginative concert performances).
What quickly emerges is a wildly appealing portrait of Perry. She seems like a thoroughly genuine person, one whose many eccentricities aren’t a ploy for attention, but a legitimate expression of her unique personality. There’s always the chance the documentary presents a selective view of the singer – all documentaries do – but given the breadth of footage assembled here (so much of it refreshingly candid), and the consistency with which Perry’s personality is presented, she appears to be the real deal, a charming individual absolutely worth spending 90 minutes with.
In particular, it’s the moments Perry interacts with fans that cement her identity. She’s always overjoyed and enthusiastic to meet the devotees that come backstage; even on days when strenuous tour demands have led to exhaustion, she’s intent on making her fans feel wanted. In one sequence, she this invites a bunch of fans up on stage to dance with her, and the passion she displays for sharing the experience with them is infectious. By the time she tearfully shouts “Thank you all for believing in my weirdness,” it’s clear this all means something to her, more than just fame or a paycheck; in turn, that meant something to me. There’s so much vanity in this business, but Part of Me highlights a star who truly believes in the symbiotic qualities of performance. That’s not just refreshing; it’s downright inspiring.
Still, the film’s most moving element is its deft handling of Perry’s marriage to comedian Russell Brand. It’s such a sticky (and, I assume, painful) subject that I honestly didn’t expect it to be part of the film, but instead, it’s the emotional backbone of Perry’s story. Without ever dwelling too much on it, Perry and Brand’s romance is a constant background presence, a ticking time bomb waiting in the wings until the sad resolution brings it to the forefront. I have never cared one iota about celebrity romance gossip, but Part of Me presents Perry and Brand’s story as a relatable series of very human mistakes, one that resonates with increasing strength as the film moves along. Even though this is Perry’s story, the film is careful to never paint Brand as the bad-guy. It asserts that Katy did more to keep the relationship together – and they have video evidence of her exhaustive travel efforts to support this – but Brand is never demonized, and the romance is never heightened to anything more than a down-to-earth human story.
That, combined with the film’s highly likable portrait of Perry, turns the break-up into a true emotional wallop. Katy learns the marriage is ending on the day of the tour’s biggest show, but in a series of viscerally candid backstage scenes, she decides to go on anyway. The build-up to her actually taking the stage is as satisfying a climax as any film could ask for. When she’s finally able to collect herself in the moments before the music starts, it’s like Rocky going the distance with Apollo; the film has built to this moment so well that our emotional investment is vast, and the pay-off as fulfilling as possible.
Part of Me is so well done that, by the end, I found myself wanting a little more of everything. I wanted to see two or three more concert performances, and learn more about how those concerts are put together, and watch a few more scenes about Katy’s rise to stardom, and maybe even a little bit about her writing/recording process. The film isn’t lacking in any notable way, but every element is so finely executed that it demands greater interest from the viewer. That should be the goal of any documentary, and Part of Me delivers in spades. I never would have believed it even two or three days ago, but this really is one of the best films of the year, and there are few viewers, Perry fan or no, I wouldn’t recommend it to.
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Katy Perry: Part of Me is the biggest surprise of 2012. It's not just a fluff piece for the fans, but a spectacularly made, emotionally honest portrait of one of pop culture's biggest personalities.