To successfully depict the central dichotomy of fame is no easy task. Many have tried and many have failed, the stories of real-life and fictional legends tackled by the likes of Baz Luhrmann, Martin Scorsese, Cameron Crowe, and more. With the HBO series The Idol, Sam Levinson becomes the latest director to try his hand at building an examination of the highs and lows of celebrity.
The series follows Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a walking rags-to-riches American dream who went from singing in malls as a kid to one of the world’s most famous pop singers. When we first meet her, she is wearing a red silk dressing gown, her face promptly contorting in response to the instructions of a photographer. Tears make their way from her big doe eyes to an almost bare chest, the camera breaking out the intimacy of a close-up to capture a room bustling with people all at the service of the young star.
Levinson, much like the central character of his newest series, has quite a controversial career. The director, who first reached wide critical acclaim with HBO’s Euphoria, has received intense scrutiny for the show’s explicit depiction of teenage sexuality and excessive nudity, with some of its female stars publicly speaking against the filmmaker’s borderline obsession with nude scenes. It was unsurprising, then, to see his latest project followed by the scent of controversy from the very beginning, with Rolling Stone publishing an exposé on the production of The Idol which contained allegations of “sexual torture porn” and claimed the show eventually became “the thing it was satirizing.”
A month after the article was published, reports began circulating once more that Levinson and The Idol’s co-creator slash star Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye had overhauled the show’s rough cut, making significant changes to cast and crew — including the departure of The Girlfriend Experience director Amy Seimetz. The hubbub, of course, followed Levinson and co. to the shores of the French Riviera, where The Idol found a coveted home for its world premiere: the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Only the show’s first two episodes made their way to the festival, but that was enough to sense Levinson’s aversion to critics. “Having her around is like living in communist China,” says one of Joss’ professional entourage when spotting Talia Hirsch (Hari Nef), a Vanity Fair journalist assigned to write the singer’s big comeback profile. The comeback in question comes roughly a year after the pop star lost her mother to cancer, the thorny relationship between the two briefly hinted on Episode 2. Reeling from the grief and still recovering from a mental breakdown which forced her to cancel an arena tour, Joss is at a particularly vulnerable place, keen to please those around her, whatever the cost.
As with sharks when a droplet of blood hits the water, men can smell vulnerability on young women and Tedros (Tesfaye) is The Idol’s big bad shark. The nightclub owner first spots Joss on the dance floor of his joint, swiftly employing his emcee powers to ask the woman on a first dance, the duo fittingly grinding to the iconic beats of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” “You’re dangerous. How can anyone not fall in love with you?” he whispers to a smitten Jocelyn moments before whisking her to a poorly-lit staircase where he takes turns between hungrily groping her body and giving out half-baked lessons on the unlimited potential of pop music.
It is easy to see why Jocelyn becomes instantly smitten with Tedros. Whatever she lacks in confidence, he exudes as arrogance. She is unsure about the quality of her latest single, a label-churned radio tune meant to send the singer straight into the loving arms of teen girls and, consequently, the deep pockets of their parents. Tedros uses this insecurity as a nifty emotional entry point, reassuring but always withholding. The song is good, alright, but Joss needs to sing it like she “knows how to f*ck.”
In this dangerously superficial exploration of sex and power lies The Idol’s Achilles heel. One would think Levinson to be able to achieve some form of maturation following the Euphoria woes but, with The Idol, the director is not content in refusing to learn from previous mistakes — he is determined to surpass them. Nudity once again bypasses the territory of the insightful straight into the murky patch of the gratuitous, with Depp almost permanently half-covered, her breasts poking out of robes, dresses, and tops alike. There is even an almost risible attempt at hitting the nail on the head, with the singer dismissing a photoshoot intimacy coordinator early in Episode 1. Why? She wants to have her breasts photographed front and center. It’s her body, she says.
Tedros is clearly presented as The Weeknd’s expensive vanity project, a God-like leader blindly idolized by a bunch of fashionable, talented followers. The first two episodes don’t quite dwell on the club owner’s past, but it is evident good things are unlikely to arise from within that Pandora’s box. Fashioned with a grimy-looking rat tail and layers upon layers of black clothes, Tesfaye fails to rise to the level of his co-star — Depp is much more successful in the difficult task of bringing to life an often painfully overexposed script than the man who made it his mission over the past year to defend this show with tooth and nail.
The Idol finds its stride whenever it deviates from Gen Z's 50 Shades of Grey and into the quality of its supporting cast. Rachel Sennott is a star, unwilling to let The Idol throw off her stride. She is a hoot in the role of Joss’ best-friend-slash-personal-assistant — Cannes audiences loudly cheered at her perfectly intoned one-liners (her delivery of a line about bukkake is one of the show’s greatest). Other highlights include Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Joss’ manager and pep-talker extraordinaire Dee and Jane Adams as Nikki, a record label executive played as if Gerri from Succession was a ruthless nymphomaniac.
On top of the cast, the one other laurel to place upon The Idol is for its heavy stylization, with Bones and All cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan combining the rich texture of 35mm with slow-motion close-ups to create a visually immersive experience, amplified here by watching it on a big screen. The songs are an asserted match to the visuals, with Joss’ single a competent pop bop and a melancholic ballad sung by Red Rocket’s Suzanna Son at the end of Episode 2 offering an enticing first taste of what The Idol still has in store musically. If the stench of voyeurism manages to tank Levinson’s latest towards its conclusion, at least we’ll have one hell of a Spotify playlist.
The Idol premieres Sunday, June 4 at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and Max.
Rafa is a film programmer and journalist with words on Variety, BBC Culture, Sight & Sound and more. You can find her @rafiews.
TOPICS: The Idol, Euphoria, Abel Tesfaye, Lily-Rose Depp, Sam Levinson, The Weeknd, Cannes Film Festival