Katy Perry has been topping the charts and bringing crowds to the arena for almost four years. For some of us, that’s barely longer than our last visit to the emergency room, but it’s practically an eternity in contemporary pop circles, where multitudes of Hannah Montanas, Ashlee Simpsons, Hilary Duffs and Jojos are hyped as the Next Big Thing one week and exiled to the cut-out bin a few months later. Admittedly, Perry will have to pack in a few more decades of success under her dance belt before she can stand alongside Madonna, Cher or Streisand but, as “Katy Perry: Part of Me” reminds us, the singer-songwriter has already become the first female artist to cull five No. 1 hits from one album (2010’s “Teenage Dream”), so give the lady some credit.
A chronicle of Perry’s “California Dreams” tour, “Part of Me” begins in aggressively ingratiating infomercial mode — complete with a barrage of young fans talking earnestly about how “Katie tells us it’s OK to stand out” — then moves a few steps beyond electronic-press-kit puffiness. For Perry, 2011 was, according to an introductory title, “a year filled with tremendous success and personal heartbreak”; the cause of that “personal heartbreak,” in case you are behind on your TMZ and Perez Hilton bulletins, was the collapse of her two-year marriage to actor-comedian Russell Brand (at the media screening, many audience members murmured knowing “uh oh”s as soon as Brand crossed the camera’s path).
If Perry ever indulges in mega-diva tantrums or dabbles in debauchery, there’s no evidence of it in “Part of Me,” which instead shows her taking tea in a quiet Tokyo lounge full of cats (really — the feline variety) and clowning around with her entourage and her backstage guests, many of whom seem to be starry-eyed kids and only one of whom is immediately identifiable as Justin Bieber.
Perry’s endearingly eccentric sense of showmanship is spotlighted in lengthy, slickly edited concert sequences in which Perry plays the part of an always-astonished, slightly out-of-her-element ingenue (think Alice in Oz or Dorothy in Wonderland), cavorting around Candyland-inspired sets that might have been touched up by Elle Woods and Auntie Mame. From the looks of it, a Perry performance is like a slumber party at Studio 54, sponsored by the Keebler Elves and the Gummi Bears, and featuring more costume changes than a 1960s Audrey Hepburn film. Perry's fans are predictably worshipful; in return, she leaves them laughing and, even more importantly, dancing.
But when it delves into Perry’s rather startling background, the movie becomes unexpectedly engrossing. The woman who now sports rosewater-colored hair and sings lyrics like, “Are you brave enough to let me see your peacock?” turns out to be the daughter of two Pentecostal preachers, who raised her in a house of thou-shalt-not-iness. In an interview taped when she was 18, a perturbed Perry grumbles that in her church, “having any kind of feminist, on-your-own, independent spirit is of the Devil.” (Perry wasn’t completely disconnected from the secular world, however: Although it’s not noted in the movie, her late uncle was Frank Perry, who directed the film versions of “Play It As It Lays” and “Mommie Dearest.”)
Contrast that with the Perry of 2011, who has made a fortune singing anthems about the joys of self-awareness and the power of a great party, yet sounds remarkably traditional when it comes to ideas about love and family. Much of “Part of Me” celebrates the artificial, sugar-frosted pleasure dome in which Perry operates — complete with a break-dancing, violet-colored cohort named Kitty Purry and Willy Wonka-sized jars of candy — but there’s a real sense of sorrow and anxiety in the numerous sequences that show a fatigued Perry leaving a concert venue and jumping on a plane to fly to Brand. “Just trying to keep my marriage alive,” she cracks at one point, although the words have a slightly bitter bite.
While we never get Brand’s take on the break-up or many clues about what led up to it, “Part of Me” provides a few candid glimpses of Perry’s devastated reaction to the split. The most stunning one shows Perry backstage at a Brazilian music festival, trying to stop weeping long enough to prepare for her appearance.
“You have two options,” her manager, Bradford Cobb, thoughtfully points out. “You can cancel the show, or you can do your best.” Perry freezes on the elevated platform that will lift her to the stage, concentrates and silently transforms herself from Katy Perry the inconsolable wife to Katy Perry the worldwide superstar. Just before the platform starts to move, Perry wills herself to smile, and seconds later she’s carried up to a crowd that chants “we love you” in Portuguese. Perry, like so many musicians before her, hides her aching heart behind a guitar, singing “The One That Got Away” in a tremulous voice that threatens to betray her true state of mind, but ultimately keeps her secret.
While Perry may still hold on to her teenage dreams and adolescent wackiness, the most affecting portions of “Part of Me” are the ones that reveal that superstardom is not always a sweet ride.