Monday 23 October 2023

Remote control: "Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour"

So this is it: movie capitalism's last dance. I've made
my thoughts on the unique circumstances of The Eras Tour's release known elsewhere; all I'll add is that no ultimate good can follow from millionaire megastars arriving at ticket-pricing formulae derived from their own back catalogue. (One dreads the release of Ed Sheeran's Squared.) What of the film itself? Clearly - if not quite overwhelmingly - effort has been made to replicate the glories of a wildly successful arena tour. We get a full three hours of spectacle, one hit after another; a lightshow that dazzles while never fully eclipsing the all-American sweetheart centre stage; passing glances at screaming, lipsynching, openly weeping fans, each cutaway a nudge as to how to respond when in Ms. Swift's presence; built-in crowd participation, a zillion glowsticks, and entirely unnecessary pricegouging. (If Ticketmaster doesn't get you, Taylor will.) At least artistically, the current #1 movie suffers from releasing Swift on the heels of the Stop Making Sense reissue, reminding us as that film did of a moment when Jonathan Demme elevated the concert movie to the standing of rare popular art. The Eras Tour is adroitly managed commerce: like those operatic and theatrical simulcasts that have clogged the multiplex for several years now, it's an extension of a pre-existing revenue stream, a facsimile of an event. The direction, by the unimprovably named Sam Wrench, has by the very nature of that event to be unobtrusive: while assiduously catching every last cute legkick and tush shake, these cameras have been placed under strict instruction not to come between Tay-Tay and her adoring fans. The overall impression is of a lot of cutting around, for reasons that are as much to do with momentum as they are with what's being peddled here: escapism that depends on no-one seeing the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. Yes, you will hear, in pristine Dolby Surround, the 2014 hit "Blank Space" - the most disturbing confession to have made the Top 10 in a long time, pop's equivalent of Catherine Breillat casting Rocco Siffredi as her ideal man and then wondering why she wakes up bruised and alone. Otherwise, this is not a show that gives anything away easily, far less for free.

In large part, this is down to the way The Eras Tour has been constructed in the image of Swift herself, an eerily poised presence; more than once - and particularly whenever her image is projected onto the giant screens either side of this stage - I was reminded of S1m0ne, the computer-generated starlet invented by pop Frankenstein Al Pacino in Andrew Niccol's Truman Show follow-up. Beyoncé, a previous wearer of pop's Little Miss Perfect crown, let her mask slip briefly when she allowed herself to be filmed hyperventilating at the end of the "Single Ladies" video. (Here was the work Kelly Rowland was singing about.) Swift, by contrast, steps through a trap door, mascara intact, at the end of each song, and proceeds onto the next change of costume and era. Every pose gives the impression of being pre-rehearsed; in the middle of a stadium filled with this many people, and a show made of this many moving parts, the singer never loses track of where the cameras are. (Somewhat ironically, her sole detectable idiosyncrasy is her insistence on pronouncing "Eras Tour" as "errors tour".) She is all of the following: a fascinating amalgamation of Julee and Tom Cruise; the Britney who did not, who would not break; and something like a Barbie made of Terminators. (In her universe, John Connor stands not a chance.) The songs, reassuringly, remain pretty solid, if inevitably polished and standardised to stadium norms. The keychange in 2008's "Love Story" stands unsurpassed in 21st century pop music, propelling us all at lightspeed towards a blissfully happy ending; though it's less effective when Swift tries the same trick towards the end of the lockdown-era "Betty". By the time she's doing the hits from her 16th and 17th albums, it all became a shade too showbiz-robotic for these tastes: the kind of identikit empowerment pop fashioned for use on the end credits of a Hunger Games sequel, prequel or reboot. Watching The Eras Tour is to realise fame is a process whereby certain performers turn themselves into machinery so as to generate that which the public - and the marketplace - demands.

Two-thirds of the way through the night, Swift pauses the son-et-lumière to give a goofy, heartfelt speech in which she thanks her fans for allowing her to experiment with sounds and genres - it's heartfelt because she clearly means it, but it lands as goofy because it comes at exactly the point everything has started to sound samey; it's not as if we've heard from noisecore Taylor or John Zorn Taylor. This (evidently very successful) formula permits for as many variants as Coke (Mountain Dew country, Tab Clear acoustic, Diet folk) - and in the case of 2014's irresistible "Shake It Off", original Coke in a chilled glass bottle - but it's all still carbonated sugar water, the runway the show unfolds on coming to resemble a well-lit production line. Some of what gets turned out there absolutely hits the spot, but having to gulp down three hours of it is a lot for anybody who doesn't already have shares in the company. (For those who do, don't forget to pick up your tie-in Eras Tour cup, just £14.89 at your local Odeon.) It may well be that Swift is young and ambitious enough to eventually plunge through a trap door and re-emerge in her Tin Machine era, one that leads her audience places they're not sure they want to go - but then I remember saying something similar about the Harry Potter films when they started to get "darker", and look how that series finished up. Taylor is giving fan service for now, which makes her both a perfect fit and a safe bet for the strenuously risk-averse modern multiplex, and at a time when so much about this world appears hopelessly broken, there is comfort to be found in seeing and hearing a machine that still works as it should, that delights in gifting the public what it wants and longs for: a fantasy of aspirational slickness, sold by someone in complete control of her body and business. The pre-teens two rows behind me didn't just sing but shrieked along, excelling in the shoutier bits of "I Knew You Were Trouble"; they fell ominously silent during the roughly 1600 break-up songs, and went berserk when Taylor made the heart symbol down the camera lens. Just one solitary slip of the thumb on Spotify, and they may yet discover the late Richard Swift.

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour screens in cinemas nationwide Thursday to Sunday until November 5.

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