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Star Power: Mediating individuality and collaboration in ‘Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You’

by Sara Blad | 4 January 2021

Photo: Kevin Mazur. Credit: Getty Images for Ariana Grande.

How should one film a musical performance? Art historian Heinrich Wölfflin asked a similar question about how to choose the best angle so that a photograph of a sculpture would ‘guide the viewer back to seeking out the view that corresponds with the artist’s conception’. Though one can technically view a sculpture from all sides, Wölfflin argues that some sculptures, specifically those made in the ‘good [old] tradition’, provide one primary view so that the viewer is ‘not driven around it in order to grasp its content, but rather that it informs the viewer about its viewpoint right from the start’. Of course, unlike an inanimate sculpture, a performance incorporates movement, space, and scale. A performance evolves over time, so each moment and angle will provide a different experience of every moment for each viewer. So what is the best angle to capture a live musical performance at any given moment? And which moments and angles should one prioritize? Ariana Grande’s new concert film entitled ‘Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You’ on Netflix provides an interesting case study for this thought experiment. The film captures Grande’s vocally- and visually-stunning 2019 ‘Sweetener World Tour’. The set design features a large sphere suspended from the arena’s rafters as a moon-like structure: graphics literally transform it into a moon while Grande performs ‘Tattooed Heart’. Though the moon orbits the earth, theoretically implying that Grande is the earth or at least the show’s grounding presence, it is Grande who orbits the moon as she traverses the stage and its runway extension. The film’s near-constant cuts reinforce Grande’s own de-centered presence by often directing the viewer’s attention away from Grande’s performance. It often feels as though the director (Paul Dugdale) and editors (Simon Bryant, Benjamin Wainwright-Pearce, and Tony Zajkowski) weren’t sure of the best angle to capture Grande’s presence, so they threw every possible perspective at the viewer. Cuts quickly transition from close-up views of Grande’s profile and views of Grande obscured by something in the foreground (usually either a dancer, a fan’s extended arm holding a phone, or her microphone), to views behind Grande’s as she turns away from the camera and wide-panned views of Grande surrounded by the vast arena. This dizzying succession of different angles make it difficult for the viewer to appreciate the fluidity of Grande’s physical performance. They also overemphasize the director’s and editors’ hands in shaping the film’s presentation, and we soon lose focus of Grande in favour of other components of the performance and the concert.

Photo: Kevin Mazur. Credit: Getty Images for Ariana Grande.

Though every image of Grande feels as though it’s a fleeting one, the camera’s focus on everything around her forces the viewer to acknowledge the tour as a collective effort. Glimpses of her backup dancers, adoring fans, set design, and lighting changes all collaborate with Grande and her voice, recreating the concert’s environment for the Netflix viewer. Grande’s performance relies on all of the colours of the rainbow which saturate the stage and its surrounding area. These colours collapse the hierarchy between Grande and her dancers and fans as they’re drenched in colour, demonstrating their symbiotic relationships with one another. The tour simply could not function without each of these components. The few behind-the-scenes anecdotes of the ease with which Grande interacts with her team emphasizes this sense of equality. Grande hardly speaks directly to the camera in the film because the movie is primarily devoted to her performance. Yet, the show’s bright colours may also reflect Grande’s state of mind. Though not addressed in the film, Grande told Ebro Darden that her Sweetener album is different from her preceding albums because she felt more present than ever and began to ‘see colours more’; the album is more like her as a person and what she’s been craving to create as an artist. Perhaps that is why the movie is primarily devoted to her performance rather than her speaking directly to a camera and describing her motives: the songs and the performance speak for themselves. The one constant in the film is Grande’s voice filling every corner of the room and the screen even if we don’t see her. Perhaps the camera’s focus didn’t need to be on her the entire time because every angle of the performance— blanketed in blue, red, purple, and pink tones—reflected parts of who Grande is a person. The amalgamation of those angles reflects the person, and the performance.

Photo: Kevin Mazur. Credit: Getty Images for Ariana Grande.


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