Film review – Blackpink: Light Up The Sky

It’s time for another Kpopalypse film review!  This time we’re taking a look at the latest Blackpink documentary, “Blackpink: Light Up The Sky”!

Someone suggested to me last year when it came out that I review “Blackpink: Light Up The Sky”, but I was not able to do this as the documentary is a Netflix exclusive and there’s no way I was going to be paying for Netflix as this caonima does not watch TV in general so it would be wasted money.  So I thought that was a settled matter, until my girlfriend then managed to scam a Netflix account through someone she knows.  Suddenly the Blackpink documentary was in my area!  Let’s take a look and see if this documentary meets required standards!

Released: 2020

Running time: 82 minutes

IMDB entry

Love them, hate them, or just plain don’t give a fuck about them, it can’t be denied that Blackpink are very relevant to the kpoposphere right now.  As the group that undoubtedly PAVED THE WAY for k-pop internationally, we’re all of course very interested in Blackpink… but how much do we really know?  More to the point, how much will an official documentary like this actually dare to tell us?  “Nine Muses Of Star Empire” showed us that even when a documentary has the official sanction of a k-pop agency, quite a lot of information can still slip through the gate.  I certainly expected YG to be more in control of the end perception of their product than Star Empire however, so what does “Blackpink: Light Up The Sky” actually say about Blackpink?

Plot synopsis: “Blackpink: Light Up The Sky” was released in 2020 and covers basically their entire career up until that point, and I won’t worry too much about spoilering because broadly speaking, we all know the story.  The first thing that immediately hits you about “Blackpink: Light Up The Sky” is this: it was made for American audiences, as we get various “golly gee gosh aren’t Blackpink a bit successful” soundbites from American TV programs to kick everything off.  From this point, the documentary quickly introduces the group and then spends a fair bit of time devoted to letting us get to know each of the four girls of Blackpink, tracing their upbringing, their first discoveries and achievements in music, their hopes and dreams, what their training experience was like, and so on… well, kind of.  Jisoo actually gets a bit shortchanged here for some reason, it feels like she gets far less exposition than the other girls, but that’s okay, she doesn’t cry all the fucking time like the rest of them do so maybe the director felt like there wasn’t that much drama to work with, or maybe Jisoo just couldn’t be fucked telling them anything.  Anyway, once that process is over (which feels like it takes up a good half of the film, even though it doesn’t really) we get to see more of how they interact (they all love each other, of course, especially Rose and Lisa, and especially Lisa and Jennie, and especially Rose and Jisoo and especially Jennie and Jisoo and on and on etc), how fame changes things for the girls after debut (gosh, people now recognise them and follow them everywhere, oh my), lots of emotional interviews, and what it’s like to tour the world East/South East Asia, Western Europe, Australia and the US condensed into about five minutes.  The film then finishes off with Blackpink playing at Coachella, because this is an American film for American audiences so the “big final event” that ties everything together has to be American because Americans must feel like the centre of the universe at all times and all entertainment products must always cater firstly to them before anybody else, or they might have a tantrum and start bombing some random country, and nobody wants that.  So, pretty standard stuff that you would expect, right?

Appeal to average filmgoers:  The film does a pretty good job of explaining itself and making everyone look good and not annoying, you don’t need any special knowledge to follow along to what is basically a fairly straightforward narrative.  The girls actually do come off really well, personality-wise, and while obviously they’re not going to televise Jennie throwing dinner plates at Lisa or whatever, none of it seems too sugar-coated as to be not believable, with maybe the only exception being Rose who exudes so much head-in-the-clouds hippie-chick vibe that she nearly floats away on a puff of her labelmates’ marijuana smoke.  My k-pop hating girlfriend looked at part of this documentary and actually found the girls cute and many of their statements relatable, which is a pretty impressive feat for someone who thinks the entire genre stinks and that “k-pop bitches” are kind of stupid generally.  Other bit-players also come off well – YG oppa and his henchmen are mostly not positively identified in the flesh, the closest we really get to anything like that is some interviews with Teddy, who comes across about as well as one reasonably could for someone who sits behind a recording console and covers 99.9% of his body at all times (at least he’s COVID-safe).  Some of the group interviews are a bit cringe as they’re just a circle-jerk of “you’re awesome” “no you’re awesome”, “no but you are because of X”, “no, YOU are because of Y” (which becomes even more cringe when Teddy gets included in one of these) and it’s not like they’re going to shit on each other too hard with cameras rolling anyway, but it’s all feel-good and fun enough and the bad stuff isn’t completely glossed over. 

If nothing else the girls are quite open about the trainee experience being quite harsh in terms of long hours and performance standards (Korean agencies seem to think this is a point of pride for god knows what reason) and about how they basically found it grueling, there’s enough of this darker content in there to make newcomers feel like they’re not being completely bullshitted to.  Other issues like Jennie’s occasional health/stamina problems and general touring/schedule headfucks are also touched on, not in a huge way but enough to provide a bit of light and shade.

Appeal to k-pop fans:  Of course, k-pop fans will know that they are being lied to on some level, mainly just by omission.  While a documentary like this can’t possibly cover everything, there’s definitely a feeling that we’re not seeing an awful lot that we could be seeing that might actually be interesting or relevant.  A scene where Jennie says “we chose this!” with barely concealed disdainful resignation indicates that there’s a whole world of shit she has to deal with that she obviously can’t talk about.  Another scene during stage warmups where the girls are getting feedback, the only real time where there’s a hint of negativity coming from the staff, it’s suddenly questioned only half-jokingly whether they’ll get in trouble for having the scene in the final film.  My girlfriend saw this scene and said “wow, that’s a bit harsh, the poor girls”, I turned to her and said “we should watch Nine Muses Of Star Empire after this, what you’re seeing here is light”.  The amount of tears coming out of three of the four girls also seems disproportionately high compared to the experiences they’re going through.  You do get a sense of the cut-throat nature of the trainee process, as well as just how long and arduous it is, but the details of what happens during that process aren’t really touched on heavily.  The final feeling after watching the film, if you’re an in-the-know k-pop fan, is that while it’s definitely enjoyable seeing the girls behind the scenes so much, and seeing so much high quality interview footage where the girls do get to open up emotionally somewhat, it’s also not a very convincing or satisfying look at how YG or Blackpink really operates.  In some clearly pre-fabricated scenes, like the one where the girls start cooking tanghulu in their dorms wearing full TV makeup, the bullshit detector goes sky high – we know they don’t really live like this.  Enough is shown to make you acutely aware that they’re hiding a lot more.

Aside from all that, the most irksome thing about this documentary is that when taken out of context, it presents a lot of false hope to k-pop’s legions of hopefuls who wish that they too were stars one day.  Watching it from my perspective as a veteran of music industry shenanigans on a more general level, this lack of depth feels irresponsibly dangerous.  “When you’re really invested in what you do, that’s what makes things happen”, says Rose during an interview snippet.  Of course, it’s not a complete lie: she’s speaking her truth, for her perspective as a person in the 0.01% of k-pop groups at the very top of the tree.  She is naturally going to feel that way, because she’s only ever experienced it all coming together with enough hard work, but I have no doubt that plenty of people in the other 99.99% such as the members of Nine Muses and many other groups were also equally invested in what they were doing.  There’s acknowledgement of Blackpink’s struggles and their eventual success, but there’s almost zero coverage of the fact that k-pop is an overcrowded scene and that the vast majority of groups find disillusionment, setbacks and failure on their road to trying to occupy the spot that Blackpink currently sit at.  That’s why I feel like it’s really important to watch something like “Blackpink: Light Up The Sky” and “Nine Muses Of Star Empire” side by side.

Appeal to Blackpink fappers:  On the other hand if you don’t care about any of that and just want to watch the girls in various settings for “reasons”, you are well-catered for here.  Holy fucking shit do the girls look good in this film, yes they do oh my.  I can’t exaggerate how super-cute Jennie is, she actually looks better in behind the scenes footage being mostly coy and shy in casual clothes than when she’s in the onstage persona, and that’s saying a lot because her onstage persona look is also really good.  Lisa has a perpetual smile and tons of energy, she livens up every scene she’s in.  Rose just looks exactly the same onstage and off, some of the things she says are kind of insipid but it’s hard to blame her for that given the world she’s in – she comes across as so good-hearted that she’s impossible not to like.  Jisoo on the other hand is proof of the transformative power of makeup and stage lighting, when not in full Blackpink mode she looks like one of her stylists.  I’m not even joking, there’s a scene where she’s talking to her actual stylist while she’s there doing her makeup and I literally did a double-take because they looked so similar in some shots.

This, combined with the fact that Jisoo doesn’t share quite the same emotionally high-strung thoughts as the other girls, actually made me feel like she came off the best for me, personality-wise.  Jisoo seems to have some real strong caonima vibes, which it almost feels like the documentary is trying to bury.  Jennie contains the lion’s share of attraction for me but Jisoo is something else, I don’t want to bias her as much as BE her, or at least find a way to tap into whatever strange energy is going on underneath the surface there and mint it into a cryptocurrency and sell it on this website, we could call it the DGAF token.  I’m picking Jisoo to be the most openly scathing when the whole show falls apart in a few years when YG inevitably fucks over the girls somehow and moves onto 2NE3.

Conclusion: Blackpink are an iconic group who are probably at the peak of their powers right now, and that’s both the biggest strength and the biggest problem with this documentary.  On one hand it’s great to get such a detailed (if superficial) snapshot of such a globally huge group while they’re riding this high, so the results can’t help but be fascinating – imagine a dive into the behind the scenes world of The Beatles in 1964 instead of the fairly lame documentary footage that survives from that era.  On the flipside, Blackpink’s story is still being written, and the most interesting parts of that story haven’t actually happened yet, which means that the film feels like it meanders a lot and doesn’t really have anywhere to lead the viewer to, or much to say besides “yay for Blackpink” in the most generic terms possible.  There’s a poignant scene at the very end of the film where the girls joke about where they’ll be in twenty years and if they’ll still be able to perform their dance routines without injury, which only really serves to hint at how incomplete the story is and how unsatisfying using Coachella as the documentary’s climactic highlight turns out being.  However if you keep your expectations of “Blackpink: Light Up The Sky” low, you might be surprised to find how much human interest is contained here, and it really can’t be overstated how good the girls look and how likeable they come across.  In the end I certainly didn’t mind spending 82 minutes with the Blackpink girls in my area, even if it wasn’t quite the revolution.

Final score:  3 slightly burnt tanghulu balls out of 5, but add a fourth ball if you are able to watch “Nine Muses Of Star Empire” straight afterward in the same sitting.

4 thoughts on “Film review – Blackpink: Light Up The Sky

  1. I’m surprised how similar your impressions on the movie were similar to mine. Especially the Jisoo part, she really earned some points with me by being the “girl who doesn’t really have much to lose if everything goes to shit so she gives an equal amount of fuck to all of this”. Based on her image alone I was under the impression she would be more of the “pretty and nice” type like Rosé. Also I had the expectation that Rosé’s scene in the car would make more of an impact on you, because she really brought her Australianess out during that scene from my not-Australian point of view.

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