Caroline Suh’s surprisingly revealing documentary charts the meteoric rise of South Korean girl group BLACKPINK with effective intimacy.
Documentaries about girl groups are always faintly terrifying to me. It’s the idea, I think, that healthy amounts of success come packaged with unhealthy amounts of attention; our ravenous celebrity culture seems designed to eat girls in their mid-20s alive. But it also seems designed to put them on the kind of pedestal that’ll propel a debut LP to No. 2 on the Billboard charts and lead to a first-ever performance at Coachella. The rough comes with the smooth. The stars shine bright – but then they inevitably burn out.
This is all readily apparent in Caroline Suh’s new documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, a surprisingly intimate look at the meteoric rise of Jennie, Ji-soo, Rosé and Lalisa, from the rigorous boot-camp-meets-boarding-school K-Pop industry to global superstardom, including that well-received first-of-its-kind Coachella performance. It isn’t a puff piece, though. In a sense it exposes a deeply exploitative culture that lets young women achieve everything they ever wanted, but at a price and only for a while. Stars burn bright and light up the sky, and then they fade out and die to be replaced by a new generation of next-big-things. It’s bleak.
All kinds of sacrifices are required to become those stars in the first place; the life of a teenage girl is essentially sacrificed at the altar of superstardom, to be picked apart and analysed by joyless executives who seem to have missed the point of artistic expression as anything other than a product to be sold to the masses. It’s a grim process, which is why it’s a surprise that this film, which is executive-produced by a chief executive from Blackpink’s record label, YG Entertainment, is so keen to show it off. There’s undeniably a marketing effort being made here; it probably says more about the nature of fandom that they’ll happily ignore the film’s confessional feeling just to gobble up more content involving their favorites.
If Blackpink: Light Up the Sky is an illusion, then, it’s certainly a clever one. The feeling of being allowed behind the scenes and made privy to exclusive steps on the road to mega-success is palpable. It’s as good with the scale of success as it is with the intimacy of the price one pays for it – tributes include the sacrifice of privacy, the withstanding of enormous pressure, and extended periods of time away from home and loved ones. At least it’s a group effort. If nothing else, the film gives a good sense of who these women are and how they relate to one another and their audience. It says more about them than their music or image does. Marketing or not, that’s far more revealing than most documentaries on this subject.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.