“Dear God, it’s all so tragic
And I’ll never have the chance
To feel the closure that I ultimately need…”
These are some of the comically on-the-nose opening lyrics of Glitter, the 2001 bomb of a Mariah Carey vehicle that has regularly found itself on lists of the worst films of the 21st century. Twenty years later, they also serve as a sort of metatextual dirge about Mariah Carey’s feelings on the film’s colossal failure both critically and at the box office.
Released a mere ten days after 9/11, the film became a universal punching bag immediately, with the first Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” after the attacks going so far as to make a joke that the FBI, trying to find Osama bin Laden somewhere “remote and barren,” had begun searching theaters showing the film.
The conflating of a national tragedy with a bad movie is probably never a very good move, but the juxtaposition of Glitter and 9/11 has been bizarrely bolstered through the years by Carey herself. In several interviews since its debut, she has often chalked up the poor performance of the film to its release in the aftermath of the attacks. While I’m sure there’s some truth to that, it’s a hackneyed and tasteless scapegoat for a film which opened at the box office behind ten other titles and currently boasts a 6% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also unnecessary, as a casual rewatch of the film 20 years on reveals there were probably far more systemic issues leading to the “disaster-ification” of this misguided but modest flop.
A healthy dollop of sexism and racism, for one. But lest we forget, this was also the era of female pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera regularly criticized for “showing too much skin,” the same era where Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson’s top off at the Super Bowl and Janet received the brunt of the blame. Assemble that context around the premiere of a film centering on Mariah Carey, a red-hot pop star looking to parlay a string of surefire music hits into a career as a movie star, and pull-quotes from contemporary reviews like “primarily a showcase for her breasts” read less like accurate criticism and more like willfully mean-spirited target practice.
That’s not to say Glitter is at all good. It is, indeed, quite bad. But it’s bad in a languidly mediocre way. Neither a laughably bad artifact of the early aughts or a Showgirls-level masterpiece, this is less a full-scale “so bad it’s good” catastrophe than a well-intentioned but awkward fumble.
It basically fulfills the role of “the missing 2000’s version of A Star is Born;” Janet Gaynor took the ‘30s, Judy Garland the ‘50s, Streisand the 70’s, but in between Babs and Gaga exists a 42 year gap that this sort of bargain bin “remake” is all too happy to fill. Here, Mariah’s Billie Frank is the female singer discovered by a man. They fall in love, Billie becomes a superstar, man gets jealous, then dies, and Billie closes things out by putting on a fierce dress and singing a sad song about moving on. Like Bradley Cooper’s 2018 take on the same story, the first 40 minutes are the most entertaining, albeit for different reasons. While B-Coop and Gaga hit the familiar story tropes with an eminently watchable chemistry that explodes off the screen in that instantly iconic performance of “Shallow,” Glitter stumbles through the introductory beats like a bull in a china shop, resulting in the sort of “so bad it’s good” feeling that I wish I could say pervades the entire film.
It’s during that time that we’re introduced to young Billie, slugging down milk at a jazz bar where her mother is entertaining. She joins her mother onstage, lip-syncing to the riff-tastic vocals of a girl clearly and audibly at least ten years her senior.
Mom sings, “Turn ya loooooooose”
Baby Billie retorts, “Loose, mommy!”
It’s weird shit.
Later on, when Billie’s all grown up, she’s told that “the glitter can’t overpower the artist.” There’s what Wikipedia describes as a “passionate sex scene” (it’s not) predicated entirely on a man’s perfunctory playing of – of all the world’s most sensual instruments – the marimba.
This all culminates with the film’s de facto “Shallow” moment, when a DJ affectionately nicknamed “Dice” (the Jackson Maine of this incarnation) invites the guests at a Manhattan club to freestyle rap. After two weak verses from randos, he spots Billie from across the room and, with the help of some very out-of-place slow-motion, is seemingly beamed over to her just in time to pop the mic in front of her face.
“Give me the best of you,” he says, unleashing a tidal wave of slip-and-slide riffs from our girl Billie. It’s the most purely ridiculous moment in the movie, a phenomenal mixture of the bold defiance, five-octave vocal pyrotechnics, and innate kookiness that exists at the heart of all things Mariah Carey.
Things get more boring after that. The writing and direction are clumsy, yes, the acting sub-par. Mariah herself is really neither good nor bad, undeserving of her Razzie win and also predictably dynamite whenever singing. But the weak execution aside, the much-derided pile-up of showbiz tropes and cliches isn’t really all that different from the ones that play out in the back half of Cooper’s 2018 Star is Born. Is Dice’s impassioned admonishment that all Billie does is “swing (her) ass around on stage and hit a few high notes here and there” really all that different from that awful bathtub scene where Jackson Maine drunkenly yells at Ally, “You’re just fucking ugly”?
As hackneyed as both sequences are, they underline the sort of sexist bias against pop stars that really seemed to do this film in, the kind that nowadays would manifest in the “shut up and sing” crowd. Carey, who’d been so run down by the film’s press tour that she had a full-on emotional breakdown which resulted in hospitalization, was suddenly perceived as “emotionally unstable.” Much like with Britney’s much-publicized “head-shaving incident,” the press smelled the blood in the water and pounced.
That’s kind of the ugly legacy of Glitter, as I see it. It’s bad in a fun way for a while, but then its glaring mediocrity only serves to underline how the inherent prejudices of power-hungry and mean spirited individuals led to the overinflated slamming of the film upon release.
Things have gotten better in the intervening twenty years. Justin Timberlake has finally been made to shoulder some of the blame for the Super Bowl incident, Britney’s presumed “meltdown” has been recontextualized in a more empathetic and charitable lens to her. Several “singers-first, actors second” have overcome the biases against them and found themselves in the Oscar conversation, with artists Mary J. Blige and Lady Gaga receiving acting nominations, and Jennifer Hudson clinching a much-deserved win for her role as Effie White in Dreamgirls.
Even Glitter received its “just desserts,” with the 2018 #JusticeForGlitter campaign pushing the film’s soundtrack to No. 1 on iTunes, simultaneously making it chart on Billboard nearly two decades after its initial release. It’s all well and good to “stan” a bad movie, but the real Glitter justice has been in action for years already.
Mariah herself wound up getting her own acting redemption in 2009’s Precious, in which she more than holds her own in a stripped-down, remarkably present performance. The Songbird Supreme has more than bounced back after the disappointment of Glitter, beginning when The Emancipation of Mimi launched a much-deserved resurgence. Just last year, she published her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, and doubly reclaimed her reign as Queen of Christmas with a new version of “Oh, Santa,” and her timeless hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You” topping the UK charts for the first time.
Mariah persevered and rocked on. Glitter is now a mere mediocre blip in her past.
Let that be the closure that she ultimately needed.
Glitter was released in theaters on September 21, 2001 as a co-production of 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures.