Idol Worship

From Kelly to critics: I ain't going nowhere, darn it

She's only getting started. Wind her up and she will go on at great length about how she's just a singer at the beginning of her career and it's unfair to judge her on the basis of one album, how she really loves Aretha and Gladys Knight and all those oldies-radio faves she was forced to sing on the show, how Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos made bubble-gum records at the beginning of their careers yet no one holds those against them now. She dismisses those who would also damn Thankfulfor its production, which takes the brash and bold singer from American Idoland makes her sound like every other chart-topping female singer of the past decade--some equation in which Mariah plus Celine divided by Christina minus Whitney times Avril equals Kelly, more or less.

"Let me tell you why people are figuring it out," she says quickly and confidently, as though she's just been waiting for such an opportunity. "They figure it out because they want to label you as 'girl next door' to wait for something to happen so they can call you 'bad girl.' They want to call you 'big ballad vocalist' so that when you come out with a country album or a rock song, they can be like, 'What is she doing? She needs to stick to this.' They do that to sell their papers. I'm aware of that. That's people doing their job. That's how they make a living, and this is howI make a living, and I don't mind that at all. People really don't get to me like that. At least the cool thing that has been said about my album, that has been said about me, is even if a critic didn't like the album, they recognized that I was talented and said, 'We like her but weren't a really big fan of the album and think she could have done better.' And that's just somebody's opinion."

If she's really a puppet at Fuller's command, you can't see the strings.

But a stumbling block lies ahead, and its name is From Justin to Kelly--proof, the skeptic will say, that Clarkson and Guarini are beholden after all to Fuller and 19 Group and Fox, who have conspired to make one lousy film so rushed in its production it barely even looks like freebie television much less buy-yer-tix feature film. It's barely Skokie, much less Chicago--and for that thank, among others, director Robert Iscove, who, according to Entertainment Weekly, once believed Miramax was going to let him helm Chicago. Iscove has cred enough--he directed ABC-TV's Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella--but was asked the impossible, to give a heart and a soul to a moribund beast.

Ostensibly, From Justin to Kellyaspires to be a Beach Blanket Bingoredux with a gangbang Greasefinale (music provided by K.C. and the Sunshine Band), but it plays like junior-high Neil LaBute filmed by an elementary-school AV squad. Kelly and Justin meet on a Miami beach, fall in love at first dance number and are constantly thwarted at every turn by Kelly's alleged best friend Alexa (first-timer Katherine Bailess), who intercepts Justin's cell-phone text messages and leads Kelly to believe Her True Love is a two-timing bastard. It's an odd, distasteful plot contrivance for a film aimed at preteens--a cute-for-kids love story in which a woman is repeatedly plunging a knife into her friend's back. (The movie's PG and goes out of its way to include the word "hell," heard twice, and Kelly refused to be shot drinking alcohol, since she was 20 when the movie was shot. Though Justin and others are seen guzzling booze, it's never clear how old these kids are supposed to be--whether they're high-schoolers or college students. Or drop-outs.)

Worse, From Justin to Kelly is a musical so pedestrian it trips over its feet every time someone breaks into song or dance. It's so poorly lit you can barely see actors in some scenes, and rare's the occasion when characters actually look at each other during musical numbers, much less sing to or with each other, which is especially jarring during Kelly and Justin's Big Love Scene, where you're never sure if they're supposed to hear what the other's saying or it's all taking place, ya know, in their minds. It's just as well RCA isn't releasing a soundtrack for this debacle--better not to be reminded of its existence in two weeks, which was originally how long Fox was going to wait before shuffling this from big screens to DVD retailers' shelves till theater owners complained.

From Justin to Kellyalready feels antiquated, not '60s retro but '80s flat, bereft of the oddball anarchy of the knowingly arch Frankie-and-Annette films directed by William Asher. Those movies, among them Beach Partyand Bikini Beach, were campy, sunshiny blasts punctuated by inexplicable, subversive cameos: Peter Lorre, looking dazed and confused; Buster Keaton, getting his go-go swerve on; Stevie Wonder and Dick Dale performances and Brian Wilson contributions, Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles trying to crack each other up, Harvey Lembeck's daddy-o'ing dumber-than-leather Eric Von Zipper. From Justin to Kelly has no such "grown-up" moments, nothing for parents to savor save for an air-conditioned retreat from the sun for some 80 minutes.

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