Glitter has gone down in pop culture history as one of the worst films of all time. Not only was it a financial disappointment with a budget of $22m and a worldwide gross of less than $6m, Glitter was also released during the same week the world changed: September 11, 2001. Majority of the film was set in New York, right down to the then still-standing World Trade Centre popping in multiple frames. With a huge portion of the film’s marketing budget executed in New York, here was a city struggling to come to terms with one of the worst disasters it had ever faced, while billboards of Mariah Carey laying in a pool of glitter were displayed all around town.
Talk about terrible timing and bad luck. Yet it wasn’t a movie destined to fail: Mariah Carey was the biggest music star in the world at that time and has proven herself an assured actress (Precious, Wisegirls, Empire). The screenwriter Kate Lanier was coming off the back of F Gary Gray’s acclaimed all-female crime thriller Set It Off and Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. Ultimately, that wasn’t enough to overcome some of Glitter’s bigger problems, like the dialogue (“Silk, I had no idea you could blow like that” “And I had no idea you were interested in how good I could blow”) - and the idea of a romantic lead being a sleazy nightclub DJ named Dice who makes Marky Mark look like Prince Charming.
Tonally very strange and unsure of exactly what kind of movie it wants to be, Glitter bounces from cramming in three full-on nightclub set pieces within the first 30 minutes to just, well, being plain boring. And boring is something a Mariah Carey vehicle should never be. There’s a moment in the movie where a video director with an atrocious fake French accent cautions “the glitter can’t overpower the artist.” It’s a wise insight, completely undermined when he requests backup dancers in the next breath that are “strippers, at least”. Glitter - the movie, and the glitter - overpowers every artist, from editing transitions THAT ARE LITERALLY EXPLODING CLOUDS OF GLITTER, to suffocating an Oscar nominee like Terrence Howard at his most entertainingly oily.
Some 17 years later, it’s definitely still a bad movie: but it has its charms. In the same way you can enjoy the kitsch and schlocky qualities of flicks like Troll 2 and The Room, there’s a lot to appreciate here, from its many ‘so bad they’re good’ moments to its surpsigin number of ‘so good they’re good’ ones as well.
The '80's-ish aesthetic
Glitter is set in the early '80s, 1983 to be precise, which is amazing because it makes absoluely no sense. There’s genuinely no reason for the film to be set during this period and the production designers seem to agree, with majority of Glitter not resembling the '80s in any way, shape or form. There’s no big hair, no cocaine, and barely a fingerless glove in sight: everything from the choreography to the costume choices are late '90s (you know, when the movie was actually developed).
There were rumours that the era was decided as an afterthought - literally, after the movie was filmed and in post-production, with producers adding ‘period touches’ like the use of Grandmaster Flash’s 'The Message' no less than four times throughout the movie. As a viewer, this is delicious: watching characters in the foreground pretending it’s 1983 while an extra wanders through the background dressed like they're a time traveller from the future. It’s a treat to watch a movie struggle so badly with time period bipolar as inventions from the late '90s are used in full view of the camera, Terrence Howard saunters by outfitted like an extra from West Side Story and an iconic '90s performer such as Eric Benet essentially plays himself. The rule of thumb with decade nostalgia is it has to be at least 20 years in the ground before you can start resurrecting it: the '90s are hot right now in fashion and music, while the '80s began popping off in the late noughts. In 2001, audiences weren’t ready to be taken back to a time period that still felt super recent: Mariah Carey’s Glitter was just a little too early to capitalise on that nostalgia. In this respect, it really was ahead of its time.
One of the most underrated female MCs of all time, Da Brat was part of the top tier of female rappers that emerged from the nineties including Lil Kim, Eve, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes, Foxy Brown, MC Lyte, Trina and the queen herself, Missy Elliott. Now although her bars are more remembered than her supporting performance in Glitter, that’s not to say it’s without merit. Da Brat is an essential part of Glitter’s super weird Annie subplot, playing the best friend of Carey’s Billie Frank along with Tia Texada as Roxy. The trio meet in a New York orphanage as kids and remain BFFs and bandmates into their 20s, with their core relationship giving Glitter some of its best character moments. The enduring, all-female friendship and support system is refreshing, especially considering it’s a trope for this genre to only have women characters be competitive and combative with each other (Showgirls, Burlesque).
Back to Da Brat, who also popped up on Glitter’s lead single Loverboy (which was the best-selling song of 2001 ‘cos even when Mariah Carey is losing, she’s winning). A frequent collaborator having appeared on more than a dozen of Carey’s tracks, Da Brat was also surprisingly efficient as Louise. She didn’t have a whole lot to do in the grand scope of the movie, but every scene she’s in sparks with energy, humour and compassion. The ‘black best friend’ cliché was a staple of films around this time (see Stacey Dash in Clueless, Gabrielle Union in 10 Things I Hate About You, Elise Neal in Scream 2, Amerie in First Daughter, the list is legit endless), but Da Brat stands out among the crowd as one of the better entries. Maybe it was due to the fact that she and Carey are real-life best friends going on 20+ years, with that off-camera relationship translating to something authentic on screen. Or maybe it was the natural charisma and wit so often found in her raps that made Da Brat one of Glitter’s best assets.
Does a soundtrack really add to the quality of a film? Yes, of course it bloody does: just ask Trent Reznor as the cheques from David Fincher keep sliding under his door. But especially in the case of a music biopic, the soundtrack is key: if a bad one can detract, a good one can definitely elevate. Case and point: I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman wasn’t a strong enough song to prop up Crossroads, but Sia’s Bound To You earned a Golden Globe nomination despite Burlesque being something that “mostly plays like stale cheese”.
The Glitter soundtrack is a bit of both. It debuted at No.2 on the US Billboard album chart, which at the time was considered a crushing blow for Carey who – up until then – had only ever had No.1s (weirdly it was a massive hit in Japan). But the album was very different from her previous discography and very different from everything that has come since she was able to stage one of the most glorious career comebacks in the mid-2000s. For starters, rap and disco are two things that should never go together as demonstrated by Don’t Stop (Funkin 4 Jamaica) with Mystikal and All My Life (note: her cover of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life is the exception to this, with Busta Rhymes and Fabolous somehow turning it into a bop). Yet wedged between the disco tracks are Carey’s staple ballads like Never Too Far, Reflections (Care Enough), Lead The Way and Twister, all with great vocal performances but none of them fitting thematically with the film or the album.
Then there’s a third genre, the urban R’n’B jams which are her true passion and, unsurprisingly, pretty good: Loverboy, the superior Loverboy remix with Da Brat and Ludacris, and If We featuring Ja Rule and Nate Dogg. Her duet with Eric Benet sits in there somewhere too and with all of these songs crammed into the movie’s runtime, it’s a lot. It’s even more when listened to from beginning to end as a soundtrack, with the tone shifts between songs jarring. Glitter as an album just needed to do 50 per cent less and it would shine like its creators had so desperately wanted.
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Wednesday 9 December 2020, 11:15pm on SBS VICELAND (NOTE: no On Demand catch-up)
Genre: Drama, Music
Director: Vondie Curtis-Hall
Starring: Mariah Carey, Eric Benét, Max Beesley, Da Brat, Terrence Howard