New doc about Johnny Weir delivers humor and drama on and off the ice
He may not be the most successful figure skater on the ice, but he is probably the most well-known. His antics at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games introduced the world to his unique style and wit, and his new-found propensity to choke during competition. But never before have we seen Johnny Weir intimate, personal and behind-the-scenes. Until now.
Pop Star On Ice
Written, directed, edited and produced by David Barba and James Pellerito
May 24, Seattle International Film Festival
June 11, Closing Night film, New York City
Pop Star On Ice goes where cameras have not gone before and offers us a glimpse into the sometimes-frenetic, sometimes-introspective world that has given us one of the most controversial sports figures in the world. It is fascinating to hear Weir talk about his goals of Olympic gold and World Championships and then watch him systematically undermine his own goals with a lack of focus and discipline, all the while aware of what he’s doing and doing it with a smile. He is at the same time entertaining, frustrating, fun and sympathetic, and at the end of the film you understand that it’s all of those qualities that make him so special.
To put it in Johnny Weir terms, the film’s like a vodka shot with a champagne chaser, with Weir providing both alcohols and encouraging you to drink lots of each. The story chronicles Weir’s career from meeting his longtime coach Priscilla Hill in 1998 to the 2008 World Championships where he won his first world medal, a bronze. In that time we see the development and regression, rise and fall, of a world-class athlete who it seems is his greatest ally and his own worst enemy. The film focuses on both Weir’s personal and professional lives and how the two feed into one another.
There are scenes in the film of sheer brilliance. When Weir puts on a blonde wig and big thick black glasses and gets in a tub for “bubble bath time” with his best friend Paris (photo below), the conversation that ensues between Weir-as-female-Russian-reporter and Paris has the makings of a TV series or a Saturday Night Live skit (actually, I haven’t seen anything that funny on SNL in a long time).
Fortunately, we get to spend some time with his best friend, Paris Childers, who appears throughout the film. Childers is Weir’s alter ego, a subdued Bruno without the accent, and the two have been inseparable since they met. “We’re like a married couple without the sex,” Weir says.
At one point in the film the two best friends talk about Mark Lund’s mean-spirited comments about Weir from 2007 (more info here) and the issue of sexuality arises. And in the conversation lies one of the beautiful qualities of Johnny Weir. After we’ve seen him in a bubble bath with his best friend, seen him voguing down a practice runway (i.e., a hotel hallway), seen him sitting around the house in a tiara and talking about make-up, and as he’s sitting on a couch next to a Hello Kitty doll, he just won’t talk about whom he’s dating (and no, it’s not Childers), as though to say, “If you idiots still don’t get it yet, you don’t deserve to know.”
Being himself has clearly endeared Weir to some skaters and alienated himself from others. Scott Hamilton tries to put on a good face when talking to the camera, but when he talks about skaters being distracted you can see the eyes roll in his head as he thinks about Weir. When Evan Lysacek, one of Weir’s biggest rivals (who also comes across as a bit of a phony in the film), is asked how the two are different, steam starts bursting out of his ears when he answers, “Gosh, where do I begin.” On the other hand, Olympic champion Oksana Baiul says that Weir is her favorite skater in part because of his rebellious nature. It was watching Baiul when he was a child that inspired Weir to pursue figure skating.
The tragedy of the film is Weir’s failure to reach his goals. Expert after expert, judge after judge, fan after fan tell the camera that Weir has limitless talent, that when he applies himself there is no one who can beat him. Yet at competition after competition, he raises expectations and blows it, often placing after the short program only to flounder in the free. The film helps us understand why.
At one point, Weir criticizes the skating powers-that-be and talks about how the scoring system is undermining the artistry and the athleticism of the sport and how he cherishes those aspects of skating. Olympian Brian Orser then defends the scoring system saying, “It’s all about putting together points. It’s math.” And in that paradox lies part of Weir’s struggle: He is an artist and an athlete, not a mathematician.
The other main part of his struggle is his undying individualism, and we see that in clashes with Hill, who was Weir’s first coach and coached him through 2007. Throughout that time, it’s clear that Weir looks at Hill as a mother figure with whom he can joke around and against whom he can rebel. Repeatedly we see Hill offer Weir advice and direction and see him turn his back to her. Tatiana Tarasova, described as a legendary Russian coach, sees it: “He’s wonderful, but never ready for competition.” Weir’s eventual parting with Hill encompasses a good portion of the final act of the film as Weir takes aim at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Criticism of the film could take aim at the portrayal of Hill, who plays too much to the camera and seems to want the attention an audience can give her; It’s a bit off-putting at times and I wish the editors had removed more of her hamming and grinning for the camera. I would have also liked to see more about Weir’s romantic life; As it is, it’s the subject of a 60-second conversation and that’s it. But I imagine the film wouldn’t have happened at all if the filmmakers had insisted that be a part of it.
I would leave the last piece of criticism at the very feet of Weir himself. Knowing Weir’s age and seeing what has transpired through the film and since the film’s story concluded, Weir has one final shot to achieve his goal of Olympic gold. If he doesn’t figure out his issues between now and next January at the U.S. Nationals, his amateur career will end without that goal achieved. To see all of that apparent talent and support go without the ultimate crown would be a shame.
Still, in a world of cookie-cutter sports, where athletes are told how they can behave, Johnny Weir is an incredibly unique breath of fresh air. He really is a pop star on ice, and the film reflects that. And while his fans may be frustrated at times that his antics and seeming lack of professional maturity may undermine his ability to win, Sue Anderson, one of Johnny’s Angels, puts it perfectly in the film:
“He is not afraid to be a natural person, and people relate to that. They flock to him because of that, because they feel like he’s not superficial, he’s not saying something that’s just canned. He’s not afraid to give the most spontaneous answer that comes to mind, and that gets him into trouble. But we love him for it.”