If you didn't see it live, I'm sure you've heard about the debacle of Britney Spears's opening act at the VMA's. If not, here's the video. It's an awful performance: she's clumsy and unfocused, stumbling through minimal choreography while wearing an outfit that's much more revealing than her untoned body can justify. I couldn't watch the entire number. It was too painful.
But what little I did watch reminded me of another musical number by another troubled performer.
My first year at USC, I took a class called "The Films of Charles Walters," which was one of the easiest classes ever. You would watch a different film directed by Charles Walters every week, then Walters himself would talk about how it was made. Since Walters himself was giving the class, it was an easy 'A' as long as your final paper was full of sufficient praise.
Charles Walters was an MGM director back in the studio's heyday. He started as a choreographer, then later directed films featuring some of the studio's biggest stars: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and most importantly for this comparison, Judy Garland.
"Summer Stock" was one of Walters's films for the studio. Starring Judy Garland (alongside Gene Kelly), it was her last big musical. She was not in good shape when the film was made; she was overweight and overmedicated, and the studio was worried about her, with good reason. She had suffered a breakdown on a previous film ("The Pirate" in 1947, also starring Kelly and directed by her husband, Vincente Minelli). And watching "Summer Stock," you can tell that this is not the sparkling Judy of old.
Until the final showstopping number, "Get Happy." Judy wears a man's hat and a suit coat as a minidress and performs the hell out of an intricately choreographed number.
But here's the thing. It was all a trick. According to Walters, Garland had suffered another breakdown during production and filming had to adjust around her absence, then shut down while she went through rehab. When she returned, slimmed down and cleaned up but still fragile, they only had one number left to do. Walters and his choreographer put together a number that would require little physically from Garland, camouflaging her inactivity with swirling movements from a chorus of male dancers. All she had to do was a few steps right and left and sell the song. And it works really well, although the song itself is horribly repetitive (video here).
Watching Britney the other night, I was seeing the same thing. Britney doing a few simple steps while the dancers around her provided the real physical energy. The problem is, Britney's no Judy. Plus, Britney was live. She didn't have a second take or third take to fall back on. She was on live TV before a live audience, and never managed to connect with them. She just doesn't have the same charisma.
I understand that there were several possible factors contributing to the poor performance. But ultimately, she did her reputation no good with this comeback. I doubt her career can ever fully recover.