From Justin to Kelly and the Evolution of the Pop Star Vehicle

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From Justin to Kelly and the Evolution of the Pop Star Vehicle

When Kelly Clarkson was announced as the winner of American Idol’s genre-shifting first season, you can glimpse a resigned frown before she turns into runner-up Justin Guarini’s shoulder. This underwhelming response has since been recharacterized: “I didn’t want to win,” she admitted to Access Hollywood, “because I know that you had to make that movie.” 

“That movie” was From Justin to Kelly, a 2003 comedy which charts the choreographed fun of two singers who fall in love over a spring break in Florida. Following Kelly, a Texan bartender, and Justin, a party promoter, and the various parties who interrupt their fledgling connection (including Kelly’s hometown admirer, who shows up to race Justin on hovercrafts), the film plays out like if Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was made for the Disney Channel. 

Both simple and overwhelmed by an onslaught of unnecessarily complicated developments, From Justin to Kelly is a strangely intoxicating watch, bizarre in a way that gradually numbs the viewer. Unfortunately, Clarkson’s natural charisma and vocal prowess can’t elevate the lifelessness that defines her performance. She is undermined by a directionlessness that suspends her between the cartoonish motion of the film’s B-plots. She is one of many performers that got momentarily stuck in the gulf between singer and actor before quickly scrambling back to familiar territory. 

From Justin to Kelly was a disastrous misstep, but a remarkable example of the film industry’s shortsighted obsession with celebrity and celebrity’s willingness to take advantage of film’s elevated status. Pop stars have long experimented with modes of celebrity, but the success of such a shift must blend the artistry of singing and acting, working in tandem with the public’s idea of the star. That is why, despite the inconsequential story and the heightened central performance, Jailhouse Rock succeeded commercially, sustaining Elvis’ acting career for another decade. The film acknowledges and adapts to Elvis’ unique watchability, which had already fundamentally shifted cultural conversations around stardom. 20 years after From Justin to Kelly’s release, Clarkson, now known for her earnest likeability and familiarity, was the clear victim of the movie’s ill-defined scope.

While Clarkson was swallowed by the unwieldy musical, Elvis floated above the muddle of his early projects. This was achieved in spurts of musical transcendence. Baz Luhrmann’s zany biopic of the singer recognizes this and paints this moment in Elvis’ career as a medley of colorful static backgrounds circling the bedazzled star, ideas embalmed in the poppy tracks he led rather than the films themselves. The image of him thrusting across a row of staged cells while performing the title track supersedes the content of the film. The same could be said for Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow” in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, a far superior film that remains shrouded in the stratospheric success of its song and the scene which contains it. 

While 1951’s Double Dynamite! has skirted the infamy of From Justin to Kelly, it is equally incomprehensible. In spotlighting a confused central performance from Frank Sinatra, who was early into his acting career, the film struggles to exist beyond its muddled hijinks. His underwhelming work is only exaggerated by Jane Russell’s pitch-perfect delivery as his love interest. Sinatra’s talent lay in his singing voice, smooth and low amidst a sea of bubblier sound, which was put to good use in Gene Kelly’s On The Town and even Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls, but is only wielded in Double Dynamite! for comic interludes, briefly inviting the audience into familiar territory. 

Films sporting pop stars are faced with this unenviable choice: Adapt outright musicals or make straightforward genre jaunts. Choosing to exist in the no man’s land between, proves unsuccessful. As with all art, the best films engage with the meta-reputation and standing of their stars, weaving them into the story itself. 

Both Elvis and Sinatra would successfully adapt to movie-stardom, seizing this new weapon in their famous arsenal. By contrast, Clarkson never pursued acting after From Justin to Kelly. No doubt this is due to the quality of the project and her own creative impulses, but it is also indicative of a culture bound by different codes and celebrities’ shifting sense of self-image. In many ways, From Justin to Kelly was a maneuver reminiscent of the ‘40s and ‘50s: A slight film designed to carry two up-and-coming stars. But while Sinatra and Elvis had treated these cinematic forays as ways to expand their onscreen brand, singers in the 2000s were faced with a tabloid culture that pushed famous women to the brink of breakdown; as such they had to be especially careful in straying from their established image (as Jessica Simpson learned after being publicly challenged for her self-fashioned “good girl” persona). If anything, From Justin to Kelly has been seen as a slight detour in Clarkson’s history, rather than a moment in her public self-discovery. 

Don’t Worry Darling can’t just be described as a vehicle for Harry Styles, and yet he was the topic that drew most attention from the press—the eye of the media storm. It’s impossible to know how we would have viewed the film had the festival rollout been less tumultuous, yet there is a brash clumsiness about his performance in the film which would have inevitably drawn a critical eye, (people wasted no time in making fun of him when the first clips of his scenes were unceremoniously dropped.) His performance plays like someone’s idea of “serious acting,” unmitigated and inexact. There is a sense in the film that this is the next frontier of his career, that starring in big films with capital-I Important themes will cement him in the upper-echelons of pop culture. Really, Styles would be better served by the kind old-school project reminiscent of Sinatra and Elvis’ early ventures.

From Justin to Kelly is a bad film, technically one of the worst in this subgenre of pop star vehicles. And yet, at least it is honest about what it is. It is a craven attempt at money-grabbing and star-making, playing on the inherent likeability and recent rise of its inexperienced leads. Using film as a medium to affirm or progress a famous person’s social standing rarely serves either film or famous person, yet they are cultural artifacts, uniquely able to offer us ways of interpreting the era they belong to. From Justin to Kelly is indicative of a moment that was in flux, grasping at old and incomplete ways of being in the public eye, all ultimately inconsequential in light of how the internet would soon upend such patterns.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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