I was recently presented with a question that I never expected to be asked: “Would you be interested in free tickets to see New Kids on the Block, TLC, and Nelly in concert?” As far as surprise concert tickets go, this event felt particularly odd because I couldn’t piece together exactly why these three acts would be touring together. They’re all coasting on nostalgia at this point, sure, but their heydays were all entrenched in separate decades. Having been an impressionable youth in the 90s, TLC was the most exciting act on the roster for me. If I were born a decade earlier it would’ve been NKOTB; a decade later & it would’ve been Nelly. While TLC didn’t put on the most spectacular show out of the three (that honor belongs to the surreally over-the-top NKOTB performance, another story for another day) they did touch on very emotional pleasure zones of my brain, unlocking a forgotten past of obsessively listening to the album CrazySexyCool for the majority of 1995 & beyond.
The strangest thing of all about TLC’s appearance on the concert bill and, naturally, their set itself was the absence of their deceased member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Far from a dutiful background singer, Left Eye was one of the group’s strongest voices, a hip-hop vocalist that dominated their earliest effort Ooooooohhh…On The TLC Tip and helped distinguish their later records from more one-dimensional R&B fare. Left Eye’s death raised some questions about how TLC would continue to tour in her wake. Would they replace Lopes with another rapper to mime her contributions, karaoke style? Would they just skip her verses entirely? The answer happened to be neither option. Instead of altering Left Eye’s contributions, the group simply played her verses through the sound system, with her words & image displayed on a screen above the stage. It was the most tasteful option possible, for sure, and one I’m glad that they ultimately pursued.
In the days before the concert, I decided to get myself psyched up by watching the few TLC movies available for the world. It turns out that all three pieces of TLC media I uncovered were produced by VH1. In tone, they ranged from lovingly sentimental to grotesquely exploitative, each one’s good will surviving on their treatment of Left Eye’s life & death. In their three TLC movies, VH1 alternates between abusive & loving, not sure how to reconcile its own feelings on the group. I had a similarly complicated relationship with the details of their legacy, both wanting to know the grisly details of Left Eye’s untimely demise and wishing that she’d just respectively be allowed to be remembered for how she lived, as TLC’s surviving members T-Boz & Chilli allow her to be in concert.
The most recent entry of TLC Cinema also happens to be the best & most comprehensive. A made-for-TV (VH1’s still on TV, right?) biopic about the group, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story is about as trite & by-the-books as a TLC movie could possibly be. Assuming you have a tolerance for made-for-TV biopics, CrazySexyCool (much like the album of the same name does for their music) defines the heights of where TLC cinema can go as a genre. Posed as a rags-to-riches story that follows the three budding starlets from humble Atlanta beginnings to international stardom, the film relies on constant narration from actresses portraying all three group members, offering the story as not the Official Truth, but with the framing “Here’s what I remember . . .”
The movie is heavily concerned with establishing the respective personalities of each group member. For short-hand: Left Eye is crazy, Chilli is sexy, and T-Boz is cool. In the film, T-Boz is posed as the group’s most aggressive member, standing up to the men in her musical scene & fretting over being reduced to being in a “girl group.” Chilli is locked in an extended, tumultuous affair with a record producer. Left Eye is a free spirit who begins her career rapping on sidewalks for tips, muses about how when she was a little girl all she wanted to do was to “be in the jungle with animals and just be free,” and dreams about taking the group’s aesthetic into the futuristic territory they eventually sought on the album FainMail (as epitomized in the music video for “Scrubs”). Although the real-life Left Eye was not around to tell her third of the story, the film is smart to portray her as a real person instead of an angel. It doesn’t glaze over petty conflicts she had with the group or the more infamous instances of her romantic conflicts (including the one where she accidentally burned down a mansion).
Although CrazySexyCool hits every possible biopic cliché within reach, including the classic hearing-your-song-on-the-radio-for-first-time freakout, it still manages to find ways to feel cool in its own authentic way. The 90s fashions on display here are pure gold, especially in an early scene set at an Atlanta roller rink. There’s also a thorough breakdown of how a pop group can sell millions of records and still be in debt, a sequence involving a veritable girl gang breaking into a record label’s office to take back what’s theirs, and an aggressive feminist bent in statements like “Safe sex: that’s our message, okay? We’re girls that stand up for ourselves.” It’s not all hunky-dory, though. A particularly regressive scene that depicts an abortion as The Worst Thing That’s Ever Happened was a nice reminder of why films like Obvious Child are still refreshing & necessary. Despite its strict adherence to genre & brief foray into pro-life politics, however, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story was a surprisingly enjoyable watch, a must-see for fans of the pop group. Its seamless inclusion of real-life music video & crowd footage, tasteful depiction of Left Eye’s death & aftermath, and overly sentimental statements like “Every single one of our songs came from the heart. The love we had & the loss we went through: those songs told our stories. For real,” all ended up winning me over, despite genre-specific reservations.
While the documentary series Behind The Music isn’t typically known for good taste, it’s still surprising that the same television network that produced such a loving portrait of TLC with the CrazySexyCool biopic was once so mean & exploitative about their career’s pitfalls. The Behind The Music episode hits a lot of the same Wikipedia bullet points as the biopic, as to be expected, but without any of the film’s tenderness. The 1999 special aired around the financial success of FanMail & looked back at the group’s bankruptcy, label disputes, and mansion burning as points of interest. A later, “remastered” version of the episode was released to update their story with Left Eye’s passing. The original 1999 airing is highly recommended, as it not only features more in-depth interviews with the group’s estranged manager Pebbles (who was publicly spanked in the biopic), but also just shamelessly rips into Left Eye’s mansion incident with phrases like “sickness, arson, and bankruptcy”, “TLC was almost reduced to ash when one of their own exploded in a fit of rage. The blaze turned up the heat on TLC’s red hot career,” and, I swear to God, “TLC burned up the charts and Lisa Lopes burned down the house.”
There’s some new information to be found in the Behind The Music episode that wasn’t covered in the biopic, like a second teddy bear fire that caused a lot less damage & some really cute baby photos, but for the most part CrazySexyCool makes the whole affair feel redundant. Left Eye’s math lesson about how a successful group can owe their record label money, an anecdote about how a rainbow inspired the rap verse in “Waterfalls”, and remembrances of eating “watermelon & popcorn for dinner” as a maker for childhood poverty were all later included in the biopic in much more satisfying ways. The most interesting thing here is just how trashy VH1 can get, despite their later affectionate portrait of the group (and their reality show Totally T-Boz).
If Behind the Music was an experimental dip into trashy territory, The Last Days of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes just gives up and gobbles the trash with wanton abandon. Part of the VH1 rockDocs series, the exploitative documentary aims to finish a project Left Eye began while still alive by capping it off with grisly images of the scene of her death. As suggested in the CrazySexyCool biopic, Left Eye had a desire when she grew up to be “In the jungle, naked, with friends with animals.” In her Last Days documentary, she documents herself achieving this dream in the jungles of Honduras. Left Eye films herself during her final 26 days of life. She obsessively documents her final trip to Honduras, vowing “I’ll never shut my camera off. The camera will follow me into my dreams.” Because she was so interested in preserving that time of her life on film, it’s difficult to say whether or not VH1 was morally wrong for releasing the film onto the world. There’s an undeniably grotesque feeling to the whole production, though, which is not helped at all by the way the film was completed after her death.
It’s difficult even to say if Left Eye was in the right state of mind to even authorize the release of such footage. The camera acts as a form of therapy, if anything, and the whole affair feels like a private diary of someone losing grip of their mind. Left Eye found her way to Honduras via Dr. Sebi, a natural healing guru who introduced her to numerology & homeopathic medicine. On this final trip she brought along a girl group she was managing called Egypt, intending to introduce them to Sebi’s spiritual way of life. As she opines, “You’re not just a physical being, okay? You are an entity with an energy source that is responsible for your physical well-being,” and “Day 15, 1 +5 = 6, 6 = love, 6= jealousy, 6 = sexual tyranny” it’s difficult to believe she was recording this trip out of sound mind. There’s just too many personal revelations, like her comparisons of her own mother to Mommie Dearest, her admission that she liked the strictness of rehab because it reminded her of her father, and the rehashing of her experiments with suicidal cutting for the movie to be read as anything but utterly tasteless, something that should’ve remained private.
Outside of some talent show footage of her rapping & dancing as a young teen, a mention of a group called 2nd Nature that she was in before TLC, and the assertion that she was the TLC member that called out the record label for their thievery, there isn’t much new here that feels like we should be privy to. A lot of The Last Days helps sketch out a detailed portrait of who Left Eye was as a person, especially in casual moments where she’s simply drawing or sowing while talking about her past, but it’s not necessarily our business as an audience to be exposed to that side of her. By the time the film is reveling in the actual footage of the car accident that ended her life & photographs of the resulting wreckage, the entire existence of the film feels wrong, spiritually bankrupt. It’s an interesting film, but not in a way that ever justifies its own exploitative existence. I left the film with some engaging questions about how Left Eye’s obsessive return to nature relates to the futuristic aesthetic she reached for with FanMail (as well as her solo album Supernova), but those were ideas that were also touched on in the biopic. And the biopic has the distinct advantage of not exploiting her death to appeal to viewers’ morbid curiosity.
By the time I saw TLC live they had smartly decided not to replace Left Eye or erase her presence. They weren’t always that considerate. A mere three years after their collaborator’s death, T-Boz & Chilli launched a reality show on the now-defunct UPN network called R U the Girl? in an effort to replace their missing member. It took time & wisdom to learn how to continue the group in her absence in a respectful, non-exploitative way. It turns out that this was a struggle that VH1 had to live through as well. By the time they produced the CrazySexyCool biopic, the network had released more or less the perfect TLC movie. Everything else that came before it was on highly questionable moral ground.