Madeleine Gaudin: ‘The Bling Ring’ soundtracks the reality TV generation

Tuesday, March 20, 2018 - 3:46pm

Selfie culture rules in "The Bling Ring"

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A group of teens, silently, hops a fence and slips into a beautiful glass house in Beverly Hills. Then, a wail of sirens breaks out, only it’s not sirens; it’s the punishingly loud treble of Sleigh Bells’s “Crown on the Ground.” The song wails and pulses as Sophia Coppola — queen of intertitles — immerses her audience in the world of mid-aught celebrity fan culture. Tabloid-yellow font is overlaid on thousand-dollar shoes and Louis Vuitton luggage. Our heroes (if you can call them that) approach the camera in slow motion. The flurry of cameras around them is mirrored in footage of Rachel Bilson and Paris Hilton walking the red carpet.

This is as 2009 as it gets. Of course, I’m talking about “The Bling Ring.”

The film follows fictionalized versions of a real-life cohort of teens who robbed celebrities in 2008 and 2009. Based on the Vanity Fair masterpiece by Nancy Jo Sales (yes, that Nancy Jo from that viral reality TV clip), much of the film’s dialogue is pulled from actual testimony from the kids. These kids are the product of a reality TV state, inundated with TMZ and with celebrities at their fingertips. A careful cocktail of late-stage capitalism and reality TV had crafted a very specific breed of celebrity as something that was accessible through material acquisition.

This is what celebrity culture looked like before Instagram, before we wanted our celebrities to be “human” or “relatable.”

Even in a world that demands a level of flash unusual for Coppola, she proves to have unparalleled empathy for her characters. She understands their world acutely and soundtracks the film with music that is both historically accurate and tonally appropriate.

The film’s soundtrack emphasizes the kind of aspirational lifestyle these children have been sold: one of excess. Adderall, designer bags, romanticized rehab stints and diamond-encrusted danger — this glut is mirrored in the sonic intensity of the soundtrack.

Early-aughts reality TV is a surreal beast. Shows like “Flavor of Love,” “The Simple Life” and “Bad Girls Club” paved the way for the Kardashians by marketing outrageous stunts and aesthetic extravagance. In tandem with the rise of TMZ, Facebook and the ever-increasing reach of the Internet, this type of entertainment demanded celebrities be bigger, louder and more visible. Celebrity was dictated not by talent, necessarily, but by performance stamina — who could be “on” all the time. In that vein, the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of the world win. Their stars burn brighter (and explode bigger) than anyone else’s.

Coppola pairs them with their less obviously visible musical counterparts. The lure of artists like Azealia Banks and KanyeWest is built as much on their music as their public personas. In one of the film’s more iconic scenes, Emma Watson (“The Circle”) and Taissa Farmiga (“Rules Don’t Apply”) dance to Banks’s “212” in a club.

The two Kanye tracks Coppola picks are “All of the Lights” and “Power,” which are both buoyed by a throbbing, clappy bassline. The clapping in the back of “Power” sounds like the click of a camera as West sings: “No one man should have all that power.” He’s mad and jealous and also acutely self-aware — something the film is too. The song plays over the group as they stroll down the streets of Beverly Hills, sunglasses on and iced coffees in hand. They look, for a moment, to have finally become the people they’ve been robbing, but Coppola holds us here — shooting the scene in slow motion — and the longer we hold, the longer it feels like an act, nothing more than a good performance.

As they leave a club, at the peak of their spree, too drunk to drive but too young and high on adrenaline to call a cab, M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” blares over the car speakers. The song’s refrain sums up their aspirations: “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.” This is the myth they’ve been sold and they desperately want to be mythologized. The precarity of their lives — both immediately, in the car and generally in their crimes — is nothing compared to the prospect of remembrance. Bad girls get photographed. Bad girls get remembered.

That’s the soundtrack’s brilliance, the balance it strikes between narrative reality — “Bad Girls” would be playing in that car — and tonal melancholy. There is something that feels inescapable about their situation. They feel like victims of a larger machine, a machine that has raised them on a myth.

Coppola scores the film such that we understand the appeal of celebrity glamour, of designer sunglasses and of Paris Hilton’s closet. But we also feel the tragedy and impossibility of this world, its falseness and careful creation. The kids are criminals, yes, but they're also kids who believe, wholeheartedly, in a lie.