Nothing excites and disturbs music critics like reinvention. Bowie, Madonna, Kanye, name the artist and you’ll find platitudes about their fearless creative genius, as evidenced by their ability to renew themselves. However, that only seems to matter if you’re already a press darling working in genres that pass their aesthetic test. If you’re Machine Gun Kelly, for example, transitioning from average Midwestern rapper to star pop punk revivalist, the reception is more lukewarm. Since strapping on a guitar and transforming into a rocker, he’s been met with public hostility and critical disdain, along with platinum record sales and sold-out concert halls. .
New Hulu documentary Machine Gun Kelly’s life in pink documents the rapper’s metamorphosis and his personal toll. Like other recent rock documentaries from artists still in the middle of their careers and not at the end of their careers, this is part puff piece, part therapy session and part marketing tool for their latest album. Released in June, it follows General public sale, its sixth full-length player released in March. The film begins with a montage of Kelly being alternately praised and pilloried by celebrities and internet trolls. “You don’t know what I’m going through and what it’s like,” he says like an injured teenager who has just been punished for smoking weed. Sidenote: he also smokes a lot of weed.
Born Colson Baker, Kelly began his career in Cleveland, Ohio, as an MC before branching out into comedy, including playing Tommy Lee in the 2019 bio-doc Mötley Crüe. Dirtiness. He claims the COVID-19 quarantine prompted him to turn to the guitar as an alternative to permanent exhaustion. He started posting videos of himself playing the guitar on social media, which resulted in hundreds and thousands of views and soon began collaborating with the reality TV star and Blink drummer. -182 Travis Barker, whose many extracurricular activities included collaborations with rockers and rappers. The resulting album, 2020s Tickets for my fallwas a smash hit and sold over a million copies.
Kelly is serious and well-meaning. What he lacks in originality and intelligence, he makes up for with hard work. He explains that much of his motivation comes from an unhappy family background of which he shares few details besides attention-grabbing headlines, such as the shooting death of his grandfather, for which his pre-teen father would have been blamed. “Maybe I sabotage myself on purpose because I don’t feel like I’m unlovable,” he says at one point. Later, while browsing a venue after a sold-out show, he says it’s “sad” and triggers his “abandonment” fears. The self-pity gets annoying after a while, especially as we see him traveling around the world frolicking with famous friends.
The center of Kelly’s emotional life is her daughter Cassie and her fiancée, actress Megan Fox. While his daughter appears throughout the film, defending or explaining her father with a clarity of insight impressive for someone so young, Fox just smiles in the background and looks sexy. Kelly says he wants to be the best dad he can be, but the nature of his celebrity means he’s usually on the road. His relationship with Fox, on the other hand, is obsessive. He describes her as being “like the sun” and says that “the passion between us is otherworldly”. While I’m sure his devotion to them is real, the documentary treats them like props to show he cares about more than money and fame.
Although Kelly had success before her emo-pop-punk makeover, Tickets for my fall makes him a superstar. However, for every sales record broken and every public appearance generating memes, he was also met with hostility by those who thought he was a fake and a poser. In rock n’ roll, these are generally bad things to consider. Wanting to prove that “you can’t be lucky twice”, he becomes obsessed with making sure the follow-up (what would become General public sale) debuted at number one. When it does, he’s home alone, discouraged at not being a better father and alienating Fox and his friends with his quest for perfection. The film ends with him pledging to be a better man who puts family before fame. Let’s hope he succeeds.
Over the past year, there have been myriad discussions online about the death of guitar rock and its modern irrelevance. The 36-year-old Metallica song star “Master of Puppets” in the stranger things End of season 4 and people arguing about Machine Gun Kelly’s rock good times would seem to contradict that narrative. As a movie, Machine Gun Kelly’s life in pink is too long and tries too hard to portray him as some kind of pop star hero who just wants to be loved. Looking at it, however, you realize it’s not fake. If anything, Kelly’s rapper to the rocker revival brings the genre-crossing work of ‘Lil Peep and XXXTentacion full circle. Rappers have always wanted party like a rock starand today’s artists don’t care about stylistic purity. It was only a matter of time before an ambitious MC traded in his microphone for an electric guitar.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.
New York Post