Idol Worship

What happens when an American Idol meets Sideshow Bob on spring break? Something very, very PG.
20th Century Fox

Kelly Clarkson is like you and me in at least one respect: She, too, is sick of Kelly Clarkson. "My friends are like, 'If I see you on one more interview, dude, I'm going to kill you,'" says the first American Idol, sitting in the conference room of the Dallas publicity agency representing her film From Justin to Kelly, in which she plays a Texas girl named Kelly. She is giving one more interview, dude, with plenty more to follow down the PR trail; next stop, London. To her left, taped on a glass wall, are a dozen posters advertising the film in which Clarkson stars with fellow contestant Justin Guarini, the Sideshow Bob-top who plays her love interest, a Philly boy named Justin. Clarkson swivels around in her chair and glares at the images of her face that repeat, and repeat and repeat, down several feet of wall space. "I'm everywhere," she says, in a tone of voice that suggests she's at once very impressed and very aghast at the spectacle. "It's amazing."

She should have disappeared by now, having been replaced by yet another instacelebrity on the show that made her instafamous. Fame's clock, a stopwatch measured in milliseconds, should be down to its final ticks. The 21-year-old should be a trivia question working in that Manhattan restaurant where all reality-show survivors go to pay the rent. It's Ruben's moment in time, till the sand reaches the bottom of his quarter-hourglass. Kelly who? American what? And we cared why?

But still Kelly Clarkson's here--and there and everywhere else. She's still on television, serenading Jay Leno or the latest crop of what-about-me? wannabes for whom success cannot arrive quick enough. She resides high atop the pop charts, where her million-selling album Thankful sits at the No. 4 spot, just above Norah Jones' Come Away With Me. And now she frolics wholesomely on the movie screen, where she plays Annette to Justin's Frankie in a surprisingly mean-spirited spring-break movie that looks like it was filmed in 17 days--and damned near was, lest anyone forget her name in the painful glow of the summer's first sunburn. (It actually took 30 days, at a cost of around $12 million--the price of a cab ride back to reality.)

That Clarkson has not receded into a dimming spotlight is as much her doing as it is the studios and labels that stand to make a fortune off her and the other Idols, or so she would have you believe. She is, like Amanda Bynes and Mandy Moore and Hilary Duff and the other child-adult stars gracing the cover of the recent issue of Vanity Fair, a would-be franchise aware of her bankability who puts up the front of being in control of her own career. (This, despite the fact the American Idol contract she and the other contestants signed make very clear they are all the property of 19 Group, the production company owned by the show's creator, Simon Fuller--whose sister Kim wrote From Justin to Kelly.)

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Clarkson is quick to insist hers is not tissue-thin fame concocted by marketing researchers in Fuller's teeny-pop laboratory. She will not stand for the suggestion that hers is not hard-won celebrity or that her album was something (pre)fabricated by anyone other than her. Take, for instance, this exposition on Thankful, which rock writers rightfully have knocked for myriad reasons, chief among them RCA Records, producer Clive Davis and Simon Fuller's desire to make her sound like all things to all people by cranking out a hodgepodge of radio R&B, pop-gospel, Dianne Warren-branded treacle and Christina Aguilera-fied funk that has all the identity of computer code.

"I don't consider myself pop; I don't consider myself R&B," she says, launching into a minutes-long explanation about the album's origins. "I don't really consider myself anything. I consider myself just Kelly Clarkson and making my own style of music. People are going to label it this and label it that, and if that suits them, then that's fine. People ask me what kind of genre do I want to sing in. I want to sing my genre. Entering [the recording studio] was a little difficult, because no one's really come in contact with someone like me. RCA blatantly said that. They're like, 'We've never really come in contact with someone who wanted to do so much on one CD.' And I kinda had a little leeway because I already had a fan base, and they apparently liked what I did on the show, and I sang everything...

"I went ahead and pushed. I didn't want to be an artist to come out on my second album and say, 'This is really a representation of me; they made me do this on the first one.' I didn't really want to have to be put through that because that's awful to do something you didn't want to do. I will never do that. I wouldn't have come out with a CD, I would rather not. My thing with making music is to never let someone push me around and say this is what I need to do or have to do, because there's nothing I need or have to do, and I think I proved that on the show."  

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 Thankful for its production, which takes the brash and bold singer from American Idol and 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 how I 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 Kelly aspires to be a Beach Blanket Bingo redux with a gangbang Grease finale (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 Kelly already 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 Party and 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.

Clarkson, of course, luvluvluvs the movie, which she believes has precisely the same sort of cross-generational appeal of American Idol, on which kids in their 20s perform songs written decades before they were born. She will say, often, that From Justin to Kelly is a Chicago or Moulin Rouge for kids too young to understand, or even see, those movies.

"They kind of opened up doors again for the movie musical," she says, "so we thought it'd be cool to do one for the younger audience. It's kind of a beach kind of Grease, but it's not--it's a PG. We don't say, you know, 'Chicks'll cream.'"

No, they don't. Sadly.

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