Director: Kevin Mazur
Featuring: Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elton John, Sheryl Crow, Salma Hayek, Kid Rock, Marc Anthony, Rosanna Arquette
If, as Susan Sontag once opined, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is, then the fever-grip that the intimacy of celebrity tabloid photography exerts is, on a psychological level, an entirely understandable phenomenon. Still, in a society with broad freedoms of expression and the press, the junction of those liberties and personal privacy is a messy, complicated one. The documentary “$ellebrity” digs into that arguably symbiotic relationship between jostling, freelance photographers and their famous, sometimes unwitting subjects — examining celebrity culture, the increasingly bold intrusiveness of the paparazzi, and the jumbled intersection of authorized and unauthorized image management.
If it sounds empty and salacious, it’s not. And, of course, given the celebrity angle, it’s not academic and boring, either. Directed with aplomb by Kevin Mazur, a renowned rock ‘n’ roll and icon photographer whose legitimacy and connections no doubt helped land the roster of famous actors and musicians who share their thoughts as interview subjects, “$ellebrity” evinces a surprising depth, charting the history of paparazzi and how new media in particular has helped shape the landscape of entertainment journalism over the last 30 years.
“$ellebrity” eschews a strictly chronological tack, but does trace back the history of paparazzi to Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (where the term was first coined, via the film’s photographer character) and even further, to the days of scrupulous Hollywood image control and the chaos wrought by Robert Harrison’s groundbreaking gossip magazine, “Confidential.” Of course, it’s chiefly invested in the last several decades, during which time photography “went from something that felt like it was honoring a part of you — your work, your beauty, or your youth — to a hunt, and most of the time, instead of celebrating something about you, trying to find something wrong with you,” says Salma Hayek.
Through-the-looking-glass opinions like these, and other personal anecdotes, give “$ellebrity” a nice electrical undercurrent. Sarah Jessica Parker recounts a clothes switcheroo with a stranger in a subterranean parking garage after having a breakdown while being trailed by photographers during her pregnancy; Jennifer Aniston talks about helicopters photographing her sunbathing topless in her own background; and Kid Rock jokingly talks about the shame and image damage of being photographed buying a Boca Burger.
But Mazur’s film is rangy and thought-provoking. It touches upon Ron Galella, the photographer who made a life’s work out of following around Jackie Kennedy Onassis, but is also smart enough to get the opinions of media analysts, a handful of paparazzi themselves, and even a bodyguard (excuse me, “protection specialist”) who has to deal with such swarms from the other side. Some of the glancing revelations elicit light amazement (studies show “US Weekly” averages 7.47 readers per copy) or an “of-course” shake of the head (a lot of event planners invite more photographers just because it in turn looks great on camera), but there’s a reasoned, considerate quality with which the movie is shot through. It’s a film about gossip, in part, but isn’t gossipy itself.
“$ellebrity” really hits its stride when it gets into Bonnie Fuller’s editorship of “US Weekly,” starting in 2002, which really kick-started the market for candid shots in a new way. Launched in 2004, Harvey Levin’s TMZ website in many ways absorbed the ethos of “Confidential,” and in turn cable news, caught up in a 24-hour cycle and need for eyeballs, is now largely responding to what’s happening on Internet, which is driven by lowest-common-denominator clicks. Celebrity culture has even bled over into politics, the movie asserts, noting the examples of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.
Perhaps surprising, perhaps not, for a professional photographer, Mazur’s movie looks great, and is well put together. He matte-frames interwoven person-on-the-street interviews, but otherwise doesn’t gussy up his film with too much style. Meanwhile, editor R.A. Fedde shows superb instincts for constructing an effortlessly natural and engaging narrative spine, cutting back and forth between interviewees and event footage. All in all, “$ellebrity” is a smart, noteworthy socio-cultural snapshot.
NOTE: For more information, visit www.SellebrityMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon