In 10 Words or Less
Fame addiction and how the media capitalizes on it
Loves: Documentaries, Penn & Teller's B.S.
Likes: Chris Atkins
Dislikes: Celebrity culture
Hates: Reality TV, fame whores
It doesn't make me a saint or anything, but I don't watch reality television. At least, I don't since the genre lost its sense of realness, which is probably following the first season of The Real World. I'll still watch creative competition shows like Face-Off but even those struggle to keep my attention. I just can't get into watch people whose only talent is being famous (and normally combative and/or aggravating as well.) I shake my head when I catch my wife watching Honey Boo Boo and forbid my daughter from watching any of these parades of bad choice and worse behavior. Unfortunately, it seems like in America though, I am in a very small minority.
After watching Chris Atkins' documentary Starsuckers (one imagines he had a slightly different and far less repeatable title in mind), it's not hard to understand why. Training his camera on the celebrity-obsessed cultures of the U.S. and Britain, and using the classic gloved hands of a close-up magician as a presentation device, he effective lays out how and why society has become obsessed with celebrities, exploring both the reasons people become hooked on gossip magazines and American Idol, including info on the evolutionary origin of celebrity worship, and the methods the media uses to keep them hooked, like public relations efforts and selective news delivery.
Most importantly, the film illustrates the very real danger of the power celebrities wield in the world of charity and politics. I was amazed I never heard about the infiltration of Lithuanian government by reality celebrities, and fear the same thing could happen in America (if it hasn't started already.) Meanwhile, the segment about Live Aid and the follow-up concert Live 8, which contests that the organization may have done more harm than good, and may have been involved in drawing attention away from anti-government protest, were stunning, mainly because the organization has such a positive reputation. However, as presented, the info is hard to ignore, since unlike most conspiracy theories, this one is rather straightforward and stated without hyperbole.
In an attempt to give the film a narrative structure, it follows a young boy from Las Vegas named Riyann, whose parents shepard him in a quest for fame. Though he seems to enjoy it, there's a definite sadness to it all, and it's a perfect microcosm of the film's thesis. His experiences give the movie jumping-off points to get into its "lessons," which include a look at the physically addictive qualities of fame and how celebrity news is created via PR and the complicit news media it manipulates.
Though the subject matter on its own is fascinating, with illustrations of the idea of celebrity throughout time, the film is told in a highly entertaining way, through archival footage, interviews, animated segments and plenty of hidden-camera footage, as Atkins and his crew set up stings to get to the truth about celebrity, like three newspapers caught trying to illegally buy medical records of celebrities. Atkins, who earned acclaim as the director of Taking Liberties, the 2007 documentary on the erosion of civil liberties in England under Tony Blair, is a star in the making, giving the film its smart-alecky voice (though the narrator sounds a great deal like a well-known reality TV personality not named Brian Dunkleman.)
The one thing that works against the movie is the fact that it was ahead of its time. Celebrity culture built around reality TV has hit its pinnacle (or nadir depending upon your point of view) with the relatively recent emergence of the Kardashian clan, the Real Housewives and TLC and A&E's freakshows, yet, they aren't a real part of this movie, which was released in 2009. It also has the unfortunate honor of putting some spotlight on News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, but only as a defender of her outlet's poor ethics. It would be years later that she would go down with the ship in the phone-hacking scandal of 2011. Watching her here results in some rather uncomfortable 20/20 hindsight.
There's also the matter of the film being quite British in focus, which may turn off viewers who don't connect with some of the famous people highlighted, even if a celebrity is a celebrity is a celebrity. It only makes sense though, as England, via its disgusting tabloid rags, has raised celebrity-watching to a level America could only dream to match. But don't think we're not trying.
Inside a standard keepcase, you get a one-disc release, with a lightly-animateds menu offering options to play the film, select chapters and check out the extra. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
This low-budget documentary's anamorphic widescreen transfer is not exactly the best image you're going to see this year. Culled from a variety of sources, including grainy hidden-camera footage, it's a pretty uneven experience, though the new footage shot with the participants' knowledge and the animation look solid. The movie's free of any compression issues though, and nothing looks bad enough to take away from the film.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is just what you'd expect from an indie documentary, as long as what you're expecting is to hear the subjects clearly. There's nothing dynamic about the mix, which is center-balanced but there's no distortion either, so you can hear most everything well, even the clandestinely-recorded bits.
Outside of the big ones that get mainstream theater play, documentaries don't often sport a lot of extras. Starsuckers offers up some interesting bonus content though, in the form of several sets of unused clips. Most of these aren't really deleted scenes, but rather material that was collected and not utilized in the film. These start with a look at a low-level gifting suite (4:48), as the man in charge explains how it all works. Though nothing could make the practice seem like a positive, seeing this B-list version makes it somehow even worse.
"Luke Yankee" (3:30) introduces the son of the late TV and movie actress Eileen Heckart, as he cleans her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Having written about his moderately famous mother, and then turning that into a one-man show, he has the opportunity to discuss the reflected glow of fame.
The best of these clips features Atkins and company interviewing celebrities in the course of collecting footage for the film. One (which runs 2:53) covers a celebrity charity driving event sponsored by Toyota (though the term celebrity may be pushing it, as the only recognizable participant is Frankie Muniz.) These have to be the most un-self-aware celebs ever, as Atkins' obviously sarcastic questions about their motivations for attending fly right over their heads.
The other is nearly nine minutes of red carpet (or press event) interviews with genuine stars, including Keira Knightley, Clint Eastwood, Samuel L. Jackson, Emma Watson, Jennifer Tilly, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, among others. There for other reasons, the filmmakers decide to ask the stars about the nature of celebrity, and though most offer up nothing but fluff, Tilly gives some genuine answers and Jackson offers a few thoughts about professional autograph seekers.
Also included in this footage is a 2:20 animated clip made to promote the film.
The big extra however is a 36:53 featurette on the making of the film, made from interviews with the key crew and some behind-the-scenes footage. There are some excellent stories from the shooting of the film, along with info on the secret filming that was done, the legal challenges the film faced and the hypocrisies the filmmakers courted in promoting the film. You get a great feel for Atkins' wise-ass personality and the difficulty of making an expose about one of the world's most powerful industries.
The Bottom Line
Starsuckers offers up a well-structured examination of why celebrity is such an integral part of our society, and does so in a highly entertaining way, making the nearly two-hour documentary a breeze to watch. The DVD looks and sounds fine, and offers up a healthy amount of extras to extend your enjoyment. Share it with someone with an unfortunate addiction to reality TV and gossip mags, or more importantly, watch it with an impressionable youngster to show them fame isn't the be-all end-all.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.