Let me paint you a vivid Yuletide vignette.
It’s dark outside: you are sweating through your work clothes and winter coat. There is condensation in the window of the post office and you are twelfth in the queue to pick up the Secret Santa gift your delivery guy deliberately did not deliver; you are hearing ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ for…you’ve lost how many times you have heard it today. The song sends you to a dark, dark place, and that is the opposite of what Mariah and the baby Jesus want. They want you to be happy and bask in the holiday spirit. It’s not her fault she wrote an undisputed banger!
While the sound of those opening notes may now send shivers down your spine, take a moment to celebrate the glory of Mariah Carey.
Remember her comeback, fifteen years ago, when she clawed her way back from a particularly unpleasant career abyss that stemmed, partly, from one dismal professional decision. Most of us will remember the shame and infamy this film brought upon Mariah, but very few people I know have actually seen it. So, as my Christmas gift to you, I am inducting box office bomb Glitter into the (Not) Gay Movie Club, in the hope that you and your family spend this Christmas, not watching the King’s speech, but playing this turkey on your living room projector.
So, for some reason our story takes place in 1983, and we meet Billie, a club dancer who grew up in foster care after being taken from her mother, a jazz singer. She meets a record producer who offers her and her woefully underdeveloped pals a record deal as a group, but Billie’s stand-out talent puts her ahead of the pack. A DJ/producer/multi-instrumentalist/narcissist called Dice notices Billie’s voice is being used on other people’s tracks and decides to be her manager. The rest is as predictable as you imagine: fame and glory come a-knockin’ for Billie, and she is thrown into the limelight but must navigate this new life with Caution (there’s a wee Easter egg for Mariah fans/Lambs…) and learn that success comes at a price. Did someone ask Santa for invaluable life lessons?
Glitter came at a grim chapter of Mariah’s life and career. She added a Razzie Award for Worst Actress to her awards cabinet. The film currently enjoys a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has plagued her otherwise illustrious career since. She and the film have been critically panned since its release, but the film also performed poorly at the box office: granted, it had the misfortune of being released on September 11th 2001, when no one was going to the cinema, but the film was not destined to succeed. Never has a film had a more ironic title.
Can Mariah Carey act…? Sure. I’ve certainly seen worse, and perhaps we can blame poor screenwriting and direction. After all, she gives a heart-wrenching turn in Precious, playing an exasperated social worker with surprising grit and poignancy. In real life, she demonstrates real wit and acerbic comic timing, which is seen in glimpses throughout Glitter. Now, are we anxiously awaiting her Inside the Actors Studio? Good Lord, no. The stunning Top Chef queen Padma Lakshmi’s acting is crunchy, making our leading lady look on a par with Isabelle Huppert in comparison. But Mariah’s performance is probably more serviceable than many may give her credit for; she is wooden, but anyone who can maintain the illusion that she doesn’t know who Jennifer Lopez is for over two decades clearly has an actor within them.
But believe me, this film is bizarre. It follows the tried and tested rags-to-riches, star-is-born story but there are so many strange creative choices (with gloriously camp consequences). The film opens with some eerie singing from the young Billie, allowing the audience to see her innate talent. But it feels like we’re hearing Mariah’s previously recorded audio altered to sound like a child from your nightmares, creating a very surreal duet with her mother. The club Mariah is discovered in can only be described as a camp, Batman Forever-like hellscape.
The costumes are completely unhinged: at one point, there are four different characters wearing leopard print. For context, that is more than the cast of Josie and the Pussycats, and they were literally dressed as cats. And only Mariah would, in the middle of the countryside, reunite with her long-lost mother in a glittery ball gown. Oh, and Dice performs a marimba solo to seduce Billie, which is hilarious and utterly unnecessary.
However, there is no denying that what makes Glitter tolerable is its stellar soundtrack. Mariah is, of course, one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time, and the music for the film is overshadowed by, well, the film. ‘Loverboy,’ the lead single, is amazing: Mariah’s voice suits the 80s and disco homages. It was, however, a commercial disappointment, relative to the gargantuan success she had enjoyed for a decade at this point. But the Lambs (Mariah’s legion of fans) have remained loyal to the soundtrack and secured for it something of a redemption. Five years ago, a social media campaign called #JusticeForGlitter helped the soundtrack album reach number one in the iTunes charts in multiple countries.
So what has Glitter taught us? Absolutely nothing. In a pinch: if you are a phenomenal vocal talent, don’t trust seedy record producers. This film is not good. But the film is, rather, an emblem of Mariah Carey’s remarkable tenacity. The fact she recovered from this stinker and emerged as one of history’s most celebrated pop icons is a testament to her grit, as well as her obvious talent. So walk, don’t run, to your laptop to watch Glitter on YouTube: if you do decide to take on this mission, I strongly recommend being in a group receptive to low quality movies (read: invite your gay friends) and create drinking rules. For example, every time you are embarrassed, take a drink. Maybe don’t do this on a school night.