A marketing tie-in with a line of soap wouldn’t be the worst idea for “$ellebrity,” a docu that’s unafraid to get dirty digging into the subject of celebrity journalism, or to leave viewers feeling a little grimy after their immersion in tabloid culture. Featuring a cast of bona fide paparazzi magnets and a few celebs in need of exposure, the pic should attract a swarm of those same consumers it finds culpable for the current TMZ-style state of the media, even though helmer Kevin Mazur also gets into larger issues, a few of which threaten to capsize his movie.
“$ellebrity” chases several related themes, not all of which mesh seamlessly: Stars are under siege by paparazzi; the nature of news is changing; there’s a certain manipulation of media, good and bad, by exploitative publicists; and there might even be limits on the First Amendment. Most auds will sympathize with Sarah Jessica Parker when she tells of how she and her children have been stalked by low-life photographers in Manhattan, or with Jennifer Aniston for not wanting “creeps with cell phones” (Kid Rock’s terminology) crawling over her backyard fence. Not all stars are created equal, of course, and what’s not addressed deeply enough is the degree to which the publicity-hungry might put themselves in the spotlight, and then glower at it.
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Mazur is a celebrity photog himself, and in one of many odd decisions, he appears in the film as one of his own expert witnesses. He makes sure to establish that he’s not a bottom-feeder, and that many of the clicking, chattering shutterbugs lining red carpets far and wide are actually invited there by publicists hoping to create a scene. (No one would ever have guessed.) He establishes the conflicts the film is going to address, via interviews with several stars who’ve had well-publicized clashes with the tabloids, among them Elton John and Salma Hayek, who is probably Mazur’s best interview.
The director then moves, with a certain predictability, into the historical: the way bygone Hollywood could control news, the way “respectable” publications once toed the line, the way something like Rock Hudson’s homosexuality could be kept secret for years, perhaps by throwing another star under the bus (a good story, told by publicity vet Sheldon Roskin).
The gradual breakdown in what once resembled civility — from the rise of such star shooters as Ron Galella to the current ubiquity of cameras — allows Mazur to draw a fascinating arc between the ’40s magazine Confidential and the website-cum-TV show “TMZ.” That TMZ ringmaster Harvey Levin is shown only in clips, while other, less authoritative subjects/victims of celebrity journalism are allowed to wax indignant or simply bloviate, is a peculiar choice, if in fact it was a choice. So is the film’s failure to identify certain figures, such as the editors at US Weekly. Was the intent to hide their identities from stalkers, or were they considered too insignificant to have names? Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on the film.
Generally speaking, “$ellebrity” is informative, unblinkered and smart: No one’s position on the issues goes unquestioned, nor is everything all about interviews and assertions. When someone has the audacity to declare that photographs don’t lie, we get a privileged sequence involving a photo editor at US Weekly shaving the love handles off a picture of Britney Spears.
In trying to cover all the bases, Mazur also covers the bleachers and restrooms: Several of the street shooters he questions are poor representatives of not just a profession, but of humanity. (“I’m a photojournalist,” says one. “I’m an artist.”) The moral arguments on behalf of the paparazzi largely fall flat, because their motivation is so clearly money, regardless of the spin.
But there’s a select group of celebrities who attract the really intrusive coverage and invasive tactics; what’s more significantly touched on in “$ellebrity” is how these techniques could, in the end, intrude on freedom of speech and of the press, which might well be trumped by the right to privacy.
Tech credits are fine; the visuals sparkle, and R.A. Fedde’s editing is seamless.