Katy Perry: Part of Me begins with a slew of video confessionals from teenagers, who declare that the pop star’s music and lyrics have changed their lives. “She writes songs about real experiences,” says one fan. “She tells me it’s okay to be me,” says another. Within moments, the action cuts to Perry’s backstage inspection of a whipped-cream-shooting candy cane, and her own declaration that, in her skimpy new concert outfit, she looks like she’s “got an ass like Nicki Minaj.” Directed by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, whose production company, Magical Elves, was also behind Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, this frothy 3D concert doc spends its entirety toggling between put-on profundity and frivolous, risqué showstoppers, resulting in a disconnect that hinders the goal of exposing an artist’s identity.
As the film presses on, incorporating colleague interviews, family feedback, old home movies, and footage from the singer’s globetrotting California Dreams tour, it’s increasingly hard to decipher who Katy Perry is. Early audition videos show a soulful crooner inspired by the angsty feminism of Alanis Morissette, and Perry herself states a yearning desire to “write good songs with real emotion,” yet on stage she belts out tracks like “Peacock,” arguably the tackiest button-pusher since Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It).” Like a party girl who feels compelled to keep up with Lady Gaga’s weird-kid mothering, Perry is alternately and incongruously presented as a bewigged diversion and a savior poet, the latter of which doesn’t quite fly considering the lyrical peak of her biggest anthem likens outcasts to plastic bags.
Whereas many pop icons, from Justin Timberlake to Christina Aguilera, have used their growing clout to break away from bubbly beginnings and explore richer, individualistic ground, Perry seems to have done the opposite, leaving behind guitar demos and even the unique provocation of “I Kissed a Girl” to become the queen of uncannily catchy, yet undeniably trivial, chart-toppers (the movie naturally makes mention of Perry’s disheartening stance as the first woman in history to have five number-one singles from the same album). Part of Me can’t convince you that she’s anything more than that, but it does provide a motive for the lollipop-licking, Hershey-Kiss-bra-wearing persona she’s fervently assumed. To the tune of music that might pair well with footage of Middle Eastern horrors, Perry explains that her upbringing was one saturated with Pentecostal Christianity, and devoid of sugarplum comforts like Lucky Charms, the Smurfs, Michael Jackson, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. One look at the stage design for the singer’s tour reveals where the repressed desires of childhood wound up, as screaming fans are treated to the arena-set equivalent of Candy Land. To the filmmakers’ credit, the performance segments are rousing, carnivalesque, and often terrifically shot, with even the slow-mo swipe of a creamsicle-colored feather boa achieving fanciful awe. And there’s no mistaking Perry’s talents as a showgirl and vocalist, which are best exhibited during pitch-perfect ballads that her hooky hits unfortunately overshadow.
Of course, the movie also addresses its subject’s ballyhooed split from Russell Brand, a bit of unplanned drama that gives the filmmakers a climactic peak to build toward, and serves as yet another tool with which to curry favor. Part of Me often plays like a Perry ad campaign, assuring viewers that their “Teenage Dream” diva is a good, fun-loving person, and that, by God, she’s doing fine. Her makeup artist, stylist, manager, sister, parents, and grandmother all pop up to preach about her professional drive and realness, and to make crystal clear that she has a solid foundation on which to stand when things like marriages crumble. Which, in truth, is precisely the sort of benign cheerleading this movie’s core audience wants to hear. It would be wrong to begrudge Perry the whirlwind of fun she’s having, which she seems to genuinely want to share with others. However muddled its portrait, Part of Me succeeds in illuminating Perry’s good nature. But it never recovers from its almost hypocritical mixed messages, which laud a deep and pioneering artiste in one instant, and showcase a banality-spouting, walking pixie stick in the next. Who’s this pop-music sage everyone keeps talking about? Surely it isn’t the gal in the blue wig and the candy-button dress. Lively and infectious, the musical end of Part of Me is easily its sugary jewel, but in relation to the rockumentary aspect, it feels like a phantom limb.