Fame addiction and how the media capitalizes on it
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.
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.
"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.
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