From Justin to Kelly was supposed to be like Grease—and it was Grease, if it was hit on the head, bagged up with one of those little twist ties, and thrown on the curb. And on its uncelebrated 14 anniversary late last month, I was seeking an apology for it. It's kind of what I do now: demand apologies from successful people for the things that damaged our innocent minds, because I'm that self-important and someone has to do it.
As a former film student, I didn't fall upon this film by happenstance. It's like this law drilled into your head as a future filmmaker: that you need to put yourself through harm in an effort to understand what makes a good film via the cesspool of shit out there making bad ones. From Justin to Kelly just happened to be one of those experiences that I always thought offensive enough to deserve an explanation, but more on that later.
My mission for an apology first began with its director, Robert Iscove, via email to demand my "sorry." He had an AOL address like an old person, so I received an "email not found" and also got a non-response from his manager. I then tried my hand at Kim Fuller (writer) and reached a similar dead end. I began to see a pattern. Publicists for Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson were up next. I got nothing but radio silence. I even contacted a random sound guy in the rolling credits. Nothing.
It was clear that no one wanted to talk to me about this case study. I call it this because it clearly wasn't so much a "film," as it was a thing that should have been called "From Contract to Obligation."
A typical From Justin to Kelly exchange
In the end, I don't know how else to title this 2002 hot mess. I sat through an hour and change, rewatching two contestants from American Idol go to a lab disguised as a spring-break getaway in an attempt to determine who I should blame. In it, fascinating research took place, like how non-actors could maintain anxiety-inducing eye-contact, or how love can bloom from random-ass dance numbers. There may have been something you can call a story from a scribbled napkin, about a reserved girl with big dreams who works at a bar, and a frizzy-haired nice guy disguised as a douche, disguised as a nice guy, who falls in love with the lead-dancer-reserved-girl that forgets about her dreams, who now suspects that he's a douche, but he's not. Let's not waste our time with that.
All that needs to be known is that everything about this soundtrack, forced into a movie, felt like it was done at gunpoint, with two singers as its guinea pigs—it kind of felt that way in 2002, and it really does in 2017.
As much as I wanted to rip apart Justin and Kelly for putting me through lines like, "You accuse me of being a player. Well, you're the one playing games. Kelly, you know what? Game over," they were never to blame for the quotes that made the brain pause. They were cogs in the American Idol machine. Yes, I still dislike Justin for reasons that I still can't explain, but I won't blame him or Kelly. It took soul-searching and some understanding of American Idol to see how terrible tragedies like this can stain well-meaning people looking for fame.
Take in the era when this first appeared. It was fresh and groundbreaking. Regular people without an ounce of success, beer bellies and all, could decide the fates of a single person. It was the social media before it really became social, and it was all the rage. When the viewership ratings rolled in, ordinary faces were made into bankable stars.
You had the pretty boy and charismatically inclined Justin, and the innocent but relatable girl next door, Kelly. Both great singers, both popular enough for 20th Century Fox to pimp out. Even when Kelly reportedly tried to cry her way out of her film contract, she couldn't. Her fate was already set in stone.
Producer and American Idol visionary Simon Fuller's grand evil plan stood with little resistance. It took a total of three months for him to manufacture a $12 million dollar budgeted film—grossing a stupidly terrible $4.9 million, and it took slightly less than a month for it to be stripped from theaters
An obvious corporate squeeze encouraged this shit, which in part had to do with the juggernaut that was American Idol at the time. Los Angeles Times writer Richard Rushfield spent four years covering the Idol beat during its growing pains, and he also wrote the book American Idol: The Untold Story.
"Watching people put on a show like this, it was always this vast undertaking that involved a ton of people and a lot of moving parts," Rushfield told me during a phone call. " American Idol clearly had the gods in their favor even when things went wrong behind the scenes."
And things indeed went wrong like any major production, but it was the contestants themselves who faced unique pressures to not screw up or go against the program.
"Many contestants faced huge amounts of stress on a weekly basis. No one wants to mess up," said Rushfield. "And no one wants to be fired by America." Rushfield often witnessed the combination of that stress and criticism that would hit contestants during moments in front or behind their backs; both Kelly and Justin experienced this same environment.
Rushfield even recalls in his book a moment when American Idol producer, Nigel Lythgoe, described Kelly like she was a piece of produce, "She was one of those girls, not particularly pretty, not a particularly gorgeous body or anything. Just talented."
In the case of Jusin, Idol judge, Simon Cowell followed suit, "He was our banger," said Cowell to Rushfield. "He was good-looking, confident. Girls loved him. And that was enough for me to go all right, we've got enough for me. Kelly Clarkson wasn't even mentioned."
Imagine going on public record and stating that someone in the public eye didn't look pretty, like a kiss confused for a backhand. It's no wonder Kelly recalled a moment in the DVD commentary for From Justin to Kelly about trying to hide her stomach a few times in a movie that almost exclusively showcased her midsection.
I can't speak for any Idol in terms of why they would put up with this, or sign a contract for a film with the great potential to be the trash that it was. But contestants on American Idol obviously attend these shows to get their shot. Even at the expense of jobs or ventures like in the case of third runner up, Nikki McKibbin; becoming a Razzie award winner to maintain the dream seems like chump change compared to that.
Rushfield reminds me that if you wanted a quick way to sing for a living and maintain fame, you found the biggest stage there was and stayed there, and in the case of From Justin to Kelly, at great, humiliating costs, one that Kelly reportedly wishes she never had to pay according to a TIME interview, "I just want it to go away. I want to own all of it. I just want it to not be here."
Well, it'll likely stay here as I'm talking about it 14 years later, but Justin and Kelly can take solace in the fact that their hands are clean of the blood that oozed out of my ears from amazing lines like "my friends call me Kelly for short," which would hit my brain like a bullet, forcing a momentary pause to face the pointlessness of life.
The movie was embarrassing. If you liked this film, you deserve to have your tastes questioned, and every higher up involved with this, aside from its main two stars, should probably be labeled as equally embarrassing.
I'm done. If anyone wants to still apologize for this, give me a ring.
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