STARSUCKERS is the latest film from British documentarian Chris Atkins, whose last film, TAKING LIBERTIES was a powerful indictment of the Blair government's systematic dismantling of our civil rights. His new film focuses on the way in which Big Media creates celebrity avatars and systematically markets them to us from a very young age, so that the desire to be near the famous amps up their sales.
The production values on the film are, in all honesty, terrible. The animation, the slickness of the title credits, the way in which it's filmed - none of it looks as good as, say, a Michael Moore documentary, with the weight of the Weinsteins behind it. But all of that matters not one jot. Because Chris Atkins, in sharp contrast to Michael Moore, knows how to organise his material, how to back it up with credible commentators, and how to take an audience through a complicated thesis from the stuff we all think we know, to the stuff that we don't know and that scares us.
The Atkins' thesis is that humans have evolutionary programming that attracts us to celebrities, and makes us want to get as close to them as possible. It's all about wanting to learn from or mate with the alpha male. Politicians and corporate brands know they can feed off that by associating themselves with celebrities, and pretty soon the line begins to blur. Big Media creates a message splicing the two, and targets it at us from a young age. Moreover, they hold out the carrot that we too can become celebrities through reality TV. Where it gets dangerous is when Hannah Montana is marketing Walmart to kids through alarm clocks, or the Live 8 concerts are being arranged to spoil the coverage of the Make Poverty History campaign.
As I said, STARSUCKERS is a compelling, well-organised and well-argued documentary, even if I don't agree with everything it says. For instance, I fear that blaming our addiction to celebrity culture on pre-historic impulses lets us off the hook for our complicity in the whole thing. After all, THE SUN would provide 20,000 word thoughtful reviews in the manner of the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS if that's what sold. The key point is that even if you don't agree with everything Atkins is arguing, his arguments are still credible and well-researched.
More than that, you almost have a duty to yourself as a consumer of popular culture to watch this film. By definition, if you're reading this review, you've probably come via IMDB and spend a disproportionate amount of your time consuming Hollywood and the celebrity press' output. It becomes, then, mandatory to see footage of Max Clifford boasting of squashing stories - a story that he tried to injunct.
My only real criticism of STARSUCKERS is that it doesn't go far enough. I didn't get the same sense of anger as I did watching TAKING LIBERTIES. Chris Atkins takes down some low level sleazy tabloid journos, but nowhere does he explicitly examine the power, say, of Rupert Murdoch, and the way he has successfully lobbied government's to dismantle concentrated ownership laws. And in his section of politicians as celebrities, would Berlusconi not have been a more powerful example than some Lithuanians. All through the documentary, Atkins' narrator talks on behalf of "Big Media" as "we". Well, if that's the case, you need to show more complicity between the big media agents.
STARSUCKERS played London 2009 and is on limited released from this weekend, including at the Curzon cinemas.