R. KELLY'S TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET SING-ALONG (R. Kelly, Jim Swaffield). 120 minutes. Saturday (June 15), 9 p.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West).
The TIFF Bell Lightbox is a major cultural institution, one that makes a point of providing Torontonians with the best of the world's cinematic heritage. This Saturday is no different, as TIFF offers our fair city a chance to participate in R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet Sing-Along, a karaoke-ish version of the long-running series that has become remarkably popular, even while defying both classification and imitation.
"It doesn't have an equivalent," says Jesse Wente, Head of Film Programmes at the Lightbox. "There isn't something else that's sort of like it, and I think that uniqueness really propels it. I think it's endured in part because it's so utterly weird."
Almost eight years have passed since R. Kelly gifted the world with the first installment of Trapped in the Closet, a melodramatic combination of music and moving pictures that has been described as a song, a music video, a film, a hip-hopera, and, by R. Kelly himself, as an "alien." Any attempt to classify Kelly's phenomenon with some arbitrary label has proved not only to be a difficult (or perhaps impossible) task, but also a disservice to the strange audio-visual mutants that is Trapped in the Closet.
For Wente, only one classification really sticks: "Pop culture gold."
The first five chapters of Trapped in the Closet were released on a bonus DVD packaged with R. Kelly's 2005 album TP.3 Reloaded. This installment set up the narrative twists and aesthetic that would define the series through all of its extant 33 chapters. Each segment follows a similar formula: filmed in the soft focus and earthy tones of a daytime soap opera, lyrics hyper-literal (and hyper-sexual) to the point of self-parody, each chapter ending with a twist more preposterous than the last.
Trapped In The Closet begins with Kelly's Sylvester waking up in a random woman's bed, but by the end of the second chapter, he's dealing with this woman's husband's secret gay lover, Chuck. By Chapter 22, almost all of the characters (probably) have AIDS.
"What's interesting about [Trapped in the Closet] is that the songs, not just the video treatment, are very cinematic in terms of the way they're laying out their story," says Wente. "And then when they're transferred to video, they're more obviously cinematic. So the idea of showing them in a theatre actually makes some sense."
Before coming to Toronto, the Trapped in the Closet Sing-Along, which includes the first 22 chapters of the series, began as a tour organized by the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse. However, this isn't the TIFF Bell Lightbox's first foray into events that encourage audience interaction, and previous Sing Along features have proved to be a draw for the institution.
"I do expect this to be a crowd with different musical tastes than [the audience for] Grease or Sound of Music." says Wente "What's interesting about a piece like this is that you can take it straight ahead, or you can take it as a piece of postmodern, meta media. I think there's a lot of levels that it could work on, none of which I'm sure R. Kelly was necessarily aware of."
Questioning R. Kelly's awareness of the different interpretations of Trapped in the Closet is an extension of the same question people have been asking about Kells for almost two decades: does he know how ridiculous he sounds? His first solo album, 1993's 12 Play includes a song actually called "I Like the Crotch on You." (which is pretty good, all things considered). Even in the overtly sexual world of R&B, Kelly stands apart as the most blatantly, ludicrously, unknowingly-self-parodyingly sexual artist of the bunch.
"Whether it's straight-faced or not, I'm not sure that actually matters," says Wente, who deals with many guest artists and filmmakers at his position at the Lightbox. "In my experience with these things, artists often aren't necessarily aware of the different readings or the different subtexts or levels that work necessarily operates on. I'd be interested to see what [R. Kelly] would think of the sing along. I would hope he would get a kick out of it."