'Star': TV Review
Lee Daniels' new Fox musical drama features a great Queen Latifah performance, but may not be as broadly appealing as 'Empire.'
With the shocking success of Empire, Lee Daniels made an unlikely leap from polarizingly odd cinematic auteur to ostensibly mainstream TV visionary. Daniels' newly claimed populist mantle will be tested by his next Fox musical drama, Star, which shares some DNA with Empire but may actually be a purer small-screen distillation of Daniels' vision from films like Precious and The Paperboy, which means it can be off-putting.
Star focuses on prophesy-fulfillingly named Star (Jude Demorest), a sassy 17-year-old chanteuse certain that if she can just escape the nightmare of Pittsburgh (and horrifying foster care and other blue collar nightmares), she can become a major star as part of a girl group with her sister Simone (Brittany O'Grady), trapped in an even worse foster nightmare in Harrisburg, and spoiled rich girl Alexandra (Ryan Destiny). After a sudden act of violence, the three girls are off to Atlanta and into the arms of Star and Simone's godmother Carlotta (Queen Latifah), a hairdresser with impressive singing chops of her own. It's a world of salon banter, club contests, tawdry strip clubs and a down-on-his-luck talent manager (Benjamin Bratt's Jahil), who sees the girls as his ticket back to the big time.
Daniels co-created Star with playwright and The Whole Truth creator Tom Donaghy. It's effectively a tonal inversion of Empire, in which the aspirational bling porn predominated and miserable economic realities have generally been restricted to traumatic flashbacks or cautionary glimpses at the world escaped by the Lyon clan. While initial reviews mentioned the show's King Lear or Lion in the Winter literary trappings, Daniels has been just as proud to compare the show to a black Dynasty, and audience hunger for that milieu has been unquestionable. With Star, devoid of a clear literary pedigree unless you want to count something like Berry Gordy's Mahogany, it's the dour melodrama that predominates, with glimpses of fame and fortune the stuff of literal and figurative fantasy.
Where the shows live, be it aspiration-achieved glitz or in-the-gutter-looking-up poverty, plays a big role in how Daniels' love for heightened behavior is received. Perhaps the biggest reason Empire played to such a wide audience is because Daniels' directorial outlandishness didn't feel out of place in its genre of choice. It was an environment in which a Cookie could feel at home, rather than asking us to accept how a character of that size might function in a more recognizable world.
The first two episodes of Star, both directed by Daniels, are a reminder of how hard it can be to embrace his excesses when he’s wallowing in the mud of mankind rather than having campy, Cookie-driven fun. Daniels’ reliance on working-class grotesques can be effective — think Mo’Nique’s turn as the monster mom in Precious — but in this case undermines what seem to be attempts at realism. This, by the way, is completely Daniels' intention. There's a blending of organic and operatic in his film work, where he aspires to make jarring, outsized emotions and abrupt detours into unwatchable behavior.
As of now, Star is a tough show to evaluate, because the overheated tone Daniels establishes early — a grungy ’70s aesthetic of desaturated grit spiked with doses of exploitation-flick sex and violence — isn’t likely to be sustainable for subsequent writers and directors. It's hard to imagine any other director using a burning photograph to transition from a character awkwardly selling her soul and body at a grimy strip club into a glossy musical number, interrupting a scene of workplace drudgery with a celebration of Dee-Lite, or treating the bloody act that instigates the plot as something almost out of a slasher film. Those stylistic tics could vanish without losing any of the thematic concerns Daniels is working with, though, including the clash between church and secular music, the complex racial dynamic in the singing group, and the butting of heads between a gay stylist at Carlotta's shop and their trans receptionist. The tics could vanish and the show could just become about the music and maybe the performances.
Moving past Daniels' sometimes tin ear for dialogue — or insistence on saddling actors with clumsy soap dialogue in scenes that are staged as naturalistic — wouldn't hurt the actors, because it's hard to find praise for Destiny, O'Grady or Demorest, each struggling with broad or inconsistent character introductions. Demorest is older than her character, but that doesn't make it less awkward that the writers can think of no better way to illustrate her scrappy ingenuity than Star using her body to gets what she wants three times in the first two episodes. A scene of flirtation with an older football player in which they banter over the word "balls" is especially bad. O'Grady's got several beats of comedy that feel accidental and undermine the impression that Simone is supposed to be messed up in some really unfunny ways. And in order to make us get that Alexandra is the writer in the group, Destiny has to wade through a lot of musical jargon she can't sell, as well as several strained scenes with her famous parents, played with initial disinterest by Lenny Kravitz and, in the second episode, Naomi Campbell.
Are the girls actually good enough to become stars? Apparently? But Daniels sells out any revelations about their talent by staging songs with wildly overproduced backing tracks that make the trio sound like lip-synching pros instead of high-potential, raw upstarts. Any distinctiveness the three actresses have to their voices has been smoothed out completely. The speed with which Bratt's character comes to believe in the girls may be meant to reflect on his desperation, but it makes him, and all of this, hard to take seriously. There also really needed to be a memo sent around, because nobody in the first two episodes pronounces "Jahil" the same way.
No surprise, but the one performance that hits immediately and unconditionally is Queen Latifah, whose introduction soloing a hymn in church marks the rare time that singing and acting intersect. Carlotta shares flashes of style and a take-no-prisoners toughness with Cookie, but Latifah keeps it from feeling like a duplication of a popular character. If Taraji P. Henson introduced her brood mama as an uncoiled spring of energy and ambition after years in prison, dangerous and unpredictable, Latifah foregrounds faith and the weariness of years setting dreams aside for the day-to-day grind, while remaining a potential threat.
Empire premiered either at the vanguard of a movement in TV inclusivity or else it spawned or enabled that movement. Star, however, enters terrain that has been well-trod. The past few months have seen the Southern black experience diversely depicted for both drama and comedy in shows like Queen Sugar, Greenleaf, Atlanta and Survivor's Remorse. That doesn't mean that Star has become superfluous, but in lieu of market scarcity and the indisputable force of nature that was Henson's Cookie, it may have a harder time finding a place. Queen Latifah's great, but calling Star the Lee Danielsiest show on TV — which may make Lee Daniels happy — is sure to leave some viewers scratching their heads as well.
Cast: Queen Latifah, Benjamin Bratt, Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny, Brittany O'Grady, Amiyah Scott
Creators: Lee Daniels and Tom Donaghy
Showrunner: Chuck Pratt
Special premiere on Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 9 p.m. Airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox starting on January 4.