If you aren't convinced that reality television is a cultural cancer, you might want to turn on the news. This country has been so dumbed down by mindless entertainment malignancies, it elected a reality show host to its highest office.
Alternatively, you might turn on a radio. What's that sound? The processed tonal pap that's steadily usurped the place of authentic musical creation since 2002, when "American Idol" premiered. An entire generation has zero memory of the time before contestants like Carrie Underwood and Clay Aiken were confused with bona fide superstars; when musicians perfected their craft, worked their way from dives to stadiums, and performed their own compositions.
"The most impactful show in the history of television," Jeff Zucker called "Idol" in 2007. The onetime NBC Universal CEO would know, what with being chair of WarnerMedia News & Sports and president of CNN Worldwide. "American Idol," its spin-offs and its spawn have largely impacted popular music into auto-tuned vacuity.
Someone who grasps this situation avidly is writer-director Max Minghella, whose feature debut concerns a fictional British "Idol" knockoff called "Teen Spirit." The son of director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), the first-timer displays a preternaturally refined skill set with his deceptively by-the-numbers saga of rags to music-biz riches. The numbers are performed by a shy Isle of Wight teen named Violet, played by a luminous, electric Elle Fanning. Who does her own singing.
I say deceptively because the movie appears structured as standard wish-fulfillment fare. A small-town high schooler works in a pub, dreams of being a singer, then wins the reality TV lottery and makes it to the finals in London. There she'll perform for a global viewership — and, more importantly, for stokers of the star-maker machine. Look closely, though, and a subtext comes into focus. I don't want to spoil it, just let you know it's there.
The heart of the film is the unlikely alliance between 17-year-old Violet and a pot-bellied sixtysomething Croatian former opera star. Zlatko Buric's Vlad is the movie's secret weapon. The disheveled dude catches Violet's act one night and offers to manage her. The odd coupling provides Minghella with fodder for any number of offbeat, often touching scenarios, such as Vlad's introduction to Violet's mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). She
opens with "What are your intentions with my daughter?" and ends with a death threat.
Minghella knows his music history. He sees the absurdity in the situation when Violet and the other aspiring vocalists discover the first order of business is dancing: mastering those Paula Abdul-style moves that Janet Jackson, Madonna and all those annoying boy bands employed in the '80s to distract from their inability to play an instrument. It's no coincidence that Violet never uses those moves when she competes.
I suspect the filmmaker had Lorde in mind when creating the character. She's quiet, inward. But something in her leaps to life when she grabs a mic. Her body jerks in response to emotional voltage, not robotic choreography. Also, Violet ends up collaborating with Jack Antonoff, so there's that.
Teen Spirit is a far smarter movie than most reviewers are grasping. It's beautifully written and masterfully acted, with a savvily curated soundtrack and performance segments gorgeously imagined by cinematographer Autumn Durald. It's the oddest sort of love story, but a love story nonetheless, without a single boyfriend in sight. You'll see. And if you aren't already misty by the final scenes, you're a vampire.