Seemingly composed in a laboratory from stray bits of Betty Boop, Sailor Moon and Daphne from “Scooby-Doo,” pop princess Katy Perry is the closest thing to a human cartoon the music business has produced since Kiss. This is an impression that concert-tour docu “Katy Perry: Part of Me” looks to round out and humanize, and it’s successful in a number of strange, seemingly accidental ways, providing an unusually poignant hagiography alongside an unusually cut-rate live music pic. Perry’s intense fanbase should earn the film strong numbers despite competition from some real comicbook characters in its opening frame.
Following the 27-year-old Perry as she embarks on a transcontinental tour in support of 2010’s megaselling “Teenage Dream,” the film follows a familiar formula for docs of this type, cutting between abridged concert footage and backstage shenanigans, with plenty of onscreen Twittering from fans and a cadre of managers and staffers cast as confidants and parental figures. When filmed offstage by directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, Perry behaves very much as she does while on it: She’s a hammy, outsized, attention-seeking goofball unafraid to appear sans makeup and wig, and late in the film, she allows cameras into some intensely intimate moments following her midtour divorce from British actor Russell Brand.
This is, of course, something that more serious-minded pop fantasists like Lady Gaga would never abide, but Perry proves an unusually transparent diva. Indeed, one of “Part of Me’s” most arresting elements is its avoidance of the typical music-bio fiction that its subject’s superstardom was predestined, rather than the result of unflagging hard work and commitment.
Prior to becoming a household name, Perry spent the better part of a decade in record-industry purgatory, variably playing the part of earnest Christian songstress, faux-punk Avril Lavigne clone and Hotel Cafe singer-songwriter before finally settling on the ditzy pop-tart persona that has seen her notch seven No. 1 singles. At no point does the film suggest Perry finally found her true voice as a musician in her current incarnation (indeed, she rarely discusses her music at all). She simply found one that was successful, through constant trial and error.
Perhaps appropriately, considering its openness about the mechanizations of pop stardom, the film tends to treat Perry’s actual performances with a sense of grudging obligation. There isn’t a song that’s presented in its entirety here, and the footage that does make it through editing is often indifferently shot, and chopped and reconstituted in such a way that the irresistible fizziness of Perry’s best songs (“Teenage Dream,” “Hot N Cold”) is drained flat.
This really is a shame, because Perry’s elaborate, exceedingly strange stage show seems worthy of more attention. Incorporating wild Candyland-themed staging and a cornea-singeing color palette, and replete with acrobats, a human-sized feline mascot named Kitty Purry and a fairy-tale narrative throughline the film never bothers to explain, Perry’s show at times looks oddly like a Maxim magazine-commissioned episode of “Yo Gabba Gabba.”
Reversing a decades-old pop music tradition, Perry actually endeavors to undersell the obvious sexuality of her material in concert, clearly mindful of the largely preteen female audience singing along with her odes to bi-curiosity (“I Kissed a Girl”) and lurid submission fantasies couched in alien-breeding-colony metaphors (“E.T.”). Perry’s childlike delivery and broad mugging go a long way toward smoothing some of these edges, though at times the strain does show. In one moment, she sings “I wanna see your peacock-cock-cock-cock” while dancers dressed as actual peacocks cavort around her, desperate to provide some plausible deniability.
Putting on this type of show for 124 nights is clearly grueling, and after an hour or so, one begins to feel sympathetically exhausted watching Perry put on her game face for yet another endless meet-and-greet.
The challenge of maintaining her married life on such a schedule eventually becomes impossible, and Perry finally loses it before a huge outdoor show in Brazil, sobbing hysterically while waiting on a hydraulic platform to hoist her upward for the night’s first number. It’s a remarkably affecting image, providing perhaps the starkest contrast between spinning bikini tassels and abject despair to appear on film since “The Graduate.” One could quibble with its presentation here, but this is still a touching glimpse at the steely reservoir of inner strength required to portray a bubbly sexpot night after night after night.
The filmmakers cleverly incorporate interviews with fans, giving us one wonderful line from an overexcited concertgoer: “I’ve been listening to her since I first heard her!” They also score a coup with some of the 18-year-old Perry’s video diaries, which show the young singer acting very much like the misfit girls and gay teens who testify to their Perry-love via YouTube.
The sound, from a concert recorded in Los Angeles’ notoriously cavernous Staples Center, is clean and professionally rendered. Camerawork (no primary d.p. was credited) is solid if uninspired, and 3D is unobtrusive at best, murky at worst.