The music movie edition, featuring T.A.T.U

The music movie edition, featuring T.A.T.U

A periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.

You And I (2011) 
Movies about music have a higher potential for camp amusement than just about any other form of entertainment because, like the youth culture that fuels it, music evolves so dramatically and quickly that all but the savviest films about music have a tendency to look instantly dated by the time they’re released. But what happens when a film about an especially ephemeral moment in pop sits on a shelf for so long that by the time it’s released the duo that inspired the movie is but a vague, distant memory to American audiences, a “Where Are They Now?” obscurity more than a vital act?

That’s what happened with a T.A.T.U.-themed film now entitled You And I: It was filmed in 2007 and screened at Cannes in 2008 (where it shocked the world by failing to pick up the Palme d’Or), but was only released direct-to-DVD in the United States earlier this year, after T.A.T.U.’s break-up and many years too late to do anything to help the T.A.T.U. single that provides the film’s title. 

Since five years have elapsed between You And I’s making and release, it’s already an instant period piece. But the film would feel weirdly anachronistic even if it had received a prompt release back in the T.A.T.U.-crazed days of 2007. In many ways, the film feels like a contemporary version—or, given its delayed release, a quasi-contemporary version—of one of those old Roger Corman-produced B-movies where innocent young girls come to San Francisco for fun and adventure, a break from the stifling conformity of their suburban lives and maybe a Strawberry Alarm Clock concert, and end up sucking off dead-eyed hippies for smack three days later. 

Only in this case, the poor young waifs in question are a wealthy American teenager unhappily transplanted to Moscow (Shantel VanSanten) and Mischa Barton, a willowy aspiring model from rural Russia who bonds online with VanSanten over their love of T.A.T.U., the pretend-lesbian pop group that conquered Russia and briefly tantalized the United States with its Catholic-schoolgirl take on lipstick lesbianism. 

Barton comes to the big city to see T.A.T.U., meet VanSanten, and try to make it as a supermodel. VanSanten and Barton enjoy an evening of sensual ecstasy together, but these waifs are too pure for the corrupt world of the Moscow club scene. Less than 24 hours after finding rapture in each other’s arms, they have a bitter falling out and devolve into a shadowy world of drugs, sex, and cynical exploitation, where predators are everywhere and every hustler gazes lustily at these two quasi-innocents with sordid and sometimes criminal intent. 

Early in her journey of personal degradation, Barton goes to see a legendary photographer played by, of all people, Bronson Pinchot, who takes one look at Barton and bitchily grouses, “What am I supposed to do with this ass? Show widescreen movies? I mean, for fuck’s sake, that’s not an ass, that’s a continent and I am not a satellite photographer.”

The moment is supposed to be one of intense humiliation and visceral disillusionment for Barton, when the ugly realities of the business become achingly apparent. Instead it registers as high camp. Pinchot’s brutal rejection only fuels Barton’s determination to raise money for expensive portfolio shots that will finally allow her to show the world that she is a beautiful woman and not the obese, unemployable hump Pinchot sees. 

To that end, she hooks up with a boy-band frontman and his manager, and the three of them travel to meet a corpulent oligarch who promises to fund the frontman’s career but only if he inducts the corpulent oligarch’s son into his group. At first, the band and its manager seem willing to make that sacrifice, but the manager changes his mind upon discovering that the son is a monobrow-sporting, Faulknerian idiot man-child who doesn’t sing so much as screech off-key at eardrum-shattering volume. The manager insults the son; the oligarch gets angry and decides to enact revenge by having Barton—whom he blames for the whole embarrassing scene and for rejecting his son’s romantic advances—sent to jail for three months for “hooliganism.” Seriously. 

VanSanten, meanwhile, sinks deeper and deeper into heroin addiction and suicidal depression but just when it seems like both girls are on a rocket ride to oblivion, they stumble upon a literally unbelievable stroke of luck: T.A.T.U. decides to record a song that VanSanten and Barton wrote together then posted on YouTube. Barton’s character is so naive and oblivious—a helpless lamb in a world of hungry wolves—she sometimes seems mentally challenged, but the film asks us to believe that under her perpetual deer-in-the-headlight expression and monosyllabic vocabulary she’s actually a gifted poet, writer, and lyricist. T.A.T.U. subsequently springs Barton from prison. (In Russia, apparently, wealthy businessmen have the power to have attractive young women imprisoned for bogus charges, while faux-lesbian pop groups have been afforded the power to pardon prisoners under some weird stipulation in the constitution.)

You And I was designed as a coming-of-age love story about kindred spirits divided by money, geography, and opportunity yet united in their belief in the transformative, life-changing powers of shitty pop music. But VanSanten and Barton only enjoy a single night of joy together before the film separates them until a bullshit happy ending calls for a triumphant renewal of their poorly developed bond. The film is consequently a lesbian romance about T.A.T.U. that has very little use for either lesbian romance or T.A.T.U., who barely figure into the action for most of the film’s running time. Thematically and practically, You And I can only end one way: with the fake-lesbian make-out party to end all fake-lesbian make-out parties. Instead it ends with T.A.T.U. performing the girls’ song onstage. 

This singular curiosity, directed by The Killing Fields’ Roland Joffé, only intermittently fulfills its incredible potential for delirious camp, but it’s still a morbidly fascinating period piece commemorating a weird, brief window in international pop culture. The worlds of cinema and music wouldn’t necessarily be diminished if this lost film were to remain lost forever, but lovers of trash entertainment will be glad this curious  project is finally available for widespread consumption and gleeful ridicule. 

Just How Bad Is It? It’s trashy fun at times. At other times, it’s just plain trash.

Punching The Clown (2009)
I first became cognizant of guitar-toting comedian Henry Phillips through his appearances on podcasts like WTF and The Todd Glass Show and was immediately won over by his scruffy troubadour charm in spite of my strong innate contempt for people who play guitar, a hostility rooted entirely in jealousy over the fact that all of them got laid in high school while I did not. (Playing halfway-decent guitar will get you laid as a young man; the same cannot be said of an encyclopedic knowledge of The Simpsons or a pithy take on pop-culture detritus.)

As Mike Birbiglia did with Sleepwalk With Me, Phillips transformed the rough material of his struggle to find himself, and find acceptance, as a young performer into a semi-autobiographical comedy where he plays a thinly fictionalized version of himself in 2009’s Punching The Clown, a strange but winning combination of documentary, performance film, and show-business satire. 

The agreeably ramshackle, low-budget comedy’s framing device finds the laconic, self-deprecating Phillips talking to a radio DJ about his strange misadventures trying to score a fan base and a record contract after moving to Los Angeles and moving in with his similarly struggling actor brother. As a comic/musician (words guaranteed to chill the blood of a good percentage of the comedy community, especially purists), Phillips’ specialty is infusing tremblingly earnest, folky melodies with hilariously, incongruously dark lyrics. His songs sound like typical coffeehouse fare, but the lyrics betray an ingratiatingly demented satirical sensibility.

Punching The Clown follows Phillips from one shitty gig to another, whether that means playing proudly profane ditties to a mortified Christian fundraiser or ineptly playing a bootleg Batman at a children’s birthday party while filling in for his brother. Phillips stumbles blearily through life until a fortuitous string of misunderstandings sends him on an unexpected ride up the show-business ladder, and then a series of preposterous rumors about Phillips being a racist hatemonger send his career spiraling back to the earth. 

Punching The Clown’s satirical digs at groupthink and the status-obsessed nature of show business are familiar but redeemed by the low-key tone of the shambling film. Like its star/co-writer, it is an impeccably rumpled, loveable loser of a comedy, a quietly terrific vehicle for Phillips. Punching The Clown has a keen feel for the lowest rungs of show business and the never-ending gauntlet of humiliation involved in trying to make it in a business with a long history of crushing fragile souls. The film also has the benefit of being so consistently funny that it really doesn’t need the visual laugh track of patrons chuckling at Phillips’ clever and surprisingly tuneful songs, especially when much of the film’s humor comes from Phillips’ professional fumbling.

Punching The Clown concludes with Phillips stumbling sideways from gig to gig, still halfway chasing a dream that grows more unlikely with each passing year. Thankfully, things seem to have turned out better for the real Phillips, who has a professional guardian angel in the form of Sarah Silverman, who is developing Punching The Clown as a television vehicle for Showtime (a show that wouldn’t make sense with anyone other than Phillips in the lead). I hope the show gets picked up because heaven knows that both the real Phillips and his fictionalized doppelgänger deserve a happy ending. 

Just How Bad Is It? It’s actually quite good, especially for comedy junkies and stand-up obsessives. 

1 More Hit (2007)
Even by hip-hop standards, The Pharcyde has led an unusually tragic existence following the release of its masterpieces Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and LabCabinCalifornia. Group member Fatlip’s post-fame descent was chronicled indelibly in Spike Jonze’s haunting short film, “What’s Up, Fatlip?,” one of the funniest, most humane and compelling films ever made about trying to survive and thrive in the long, looming shadow of early fame. 

Now the hip-hop group’s former producer J-Swift, who produced nearly all of Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde before falling out with the group over credits, is the subject a direct-to-home-video documentary about his battle with crack addiction, homelessness, depression, and familial and romantic dysfunction, as well as his quest to overcome his demons. 

The central problem with 1 More Hit, as with many documentaries and narrative films about famous junkies, is that addiction is the great equalizer: It lends an awful simplicity to the lives of fiends and junkies by eliminating every concern and anxiety in favor of an endless search for that next hit. Addiction removes addicts’ humanity by reducing them to an all-consuming need for their drug of choice. That’s the case with J-Swift. He’s a singularly gifted figure, a handsome, charming, and accomplished man of prodigious talent, but when he’s on crack he devolves into an ugly caricature of a basehead, a paranoid, angry, and violently abusive parasite who will do anything to get money for crack, even if that means pimping a fellow crack addict he treats as abysmally as he treats himself. 

1 More Hit desperately wants to follow a redemptive arc that will take J-Swift from the lowest of the low back to the rarified, privileged realm where he once belonged, but reality stubbornly refuses to follow the program. Instead of a clear line, the film follows a frustrating, zigzagging path as J-Swift cleans up briefly in pursuit of a better life, relapses, loses contact with the filmmakers, then cleans up again before the whole pattern repeats itself over and over again. When he’s high, J-Swift oscillates between delusional, confident optimism and incoherent rage at the idea that the suffering souls around him might be trying to rip him off. 

Like its protagonist, 1 More Hit proceeds in fits and starts, never gaining much momentum before some setback knocks it off an already unsteady and halting course. For all his talent, magnetism, and charisma, J-Swift never comes into focus, and the film’s grasp on rap music is shaky at best. It’s telling that The Pharcyde barely makes a cameo, yet Jamie Kennedy, of all people, is brought in to discuss The Pharcyde’s significance in hip-hop nd the distinguished likes of Steve-O is on hand to discuss the dangers of drug abuse. 

1 More Hit is a disappointing look at a disappointing life. At 85 minutes, the frustratingly surface-level documentary offers less than a third of the insight, pathos, and humor of “What’s Up Fatlip,” even though it is three times the length. J-Swift deserves to be so much more than just a footnote to The Pharcyde’s dramatic rise and fall, but 1 More Hit fails to do justice to either its subject or his place in hip-hop. 

Just How Bad Is It? It’s less bad than underachieving and frustrating. 

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