“Pop Star on Ice,” directed by David Barba and James Pellerito, profiles Johnny Weir‘s figure skating career through his first world medal in 2008. Weir started skating fairly late–at the age of 12, he first skated amongst the frozen cornfields in his backyard–, but he can’t seem to escape what everyone expects of him: extreme talent, limitless ability, and profound artistry. But with all of these expectations, the effervescent Weir can’t seem to handle the elephant in the room: himself, an unfocused, eye-rolling hazard on ice skates. And this is what bites him in the butt, time and time again.
Throughout the film, Weir’s longtime coach, Priscilla Hill is shown as a mother figure. She hugs him, laughs, shares inside jokes, and pushes him to improve. But she also tip toes around his temper and evasiveness. Time and time again, she comments on his lack of training and preparation for the big competitions, but, hello! She’s his coach. When he continues to stop his program in the middle of run-throughs and barges out of the side door, or mentally collapses during his less-than-five-minute long program, that’s a problem. Shouldn’t she do something about this?
The directors don’t delver further into this, leaving the audience hanging as to what the actual issues are. So I’ll admit the deep dark secret that I keep bundled up under my bed: I really like figure skating. I grew up watching Kristi Yamaguchi (pre-“Dancing with the Stars”) doing camel spins while wearing heavily beaded skating dresses. I’ve been known to (on my lunch break) watch YouTube videos of recent competitions. I’ve even played fantasy figure skating (and let me assure you, fantasy baseball is WAY easier). In January, I’ve DVR-ed the national championships. And, to top it off, I went to the world championships in LA last year for my first live viewing of skating.
So here’s a basic primer. For those of you who’ve been hiding in a cave, you might remember way back in the day, skating was judged on a 6.0 scale, but after the 2002 Olympic judging fiasco (bribery, super serious investigations, two gold medals, oh my!), the system received an overhaul. Now each program, short and long, has required elements of some kind, and all elements are given a set number of base points (skaters can also gain or lose points based on how well they perform each element). Quality-type points are also earned based on things like skating skills, choreography, and transitions. A few methods to gain points: a skater can perform multiple jumps in combination or sequence; perform harder jumps, spins, and footwork; and place jumps after the “halfway point,” when most skaters start to get tired. Points can also be deducted for a fall or exceeding the maximum time limit.
When something tends to go wrong, Weir has a history of trying to re-choreograph his programs (aka routines) in mid-skate. In addition to this, he doesn’t maximize his starting point base. Anyway, back on topic… In the documentary, Johnny comments that he’s not a mathematician and doesn’t like the new system. In fact, he tells the press on several occasions (one of these was highlighted in the movie) that he doesn’t like the new system. But honey, you can’t win if you don’t play the game! And here, the game is performing a choreographed program to the best of your ability that garners you the most points possible. Whether you mess up or not, a skater has to know how to maximize his points. Otherwise, you’re dead in the water.
In addition, in the documentary, Weir admits to being overwhelmed in competitions, specifically when he’s on the ice and being judged. He says he can feel all of the TV cameras and audience staring at him, and it seems his nerves tend to get the better of him. Yet here’s a guy who says he doesn’t care about what the media says about him or his sexuality, eagerly signs autographs for drooling fans everywhere he goes, and struts his stuff at Fashion Week. Perhaps, the opening bathtub scene between his friend Paris Childers and himself was a front. Maybe there’s a softer, more vulnerable Johnny Weir inside than what he wishes to admit.
Relatedly, Weir’s become a controversial character in men’s figure skating, and not just regarding the “Is he or isn’t he gay?” question, which he handled with such ease. The documentary tries to provide reasons for why Weir might model for a magazine in women’s stilettos (the magazine staff wanted him to), wear a jacket emblazoned with “RUSSIA” along his back at the Olympics (he just loves and respects all things Russian), and make comments like, ”For [my program], [the audience] kind of sat back and had their cognac and their cigarettes and they were relaxing and watching. [Competitor Ryan Bradley’s] was like a vodka-shot-and-a-snort-of-coke kind of thing. Uh, sorry for all those drug references” (no real explanation for this one; it’s just who Johnny is). And on the one hand, Weir says he doesn’t want to actively be anyone’s role model, but on the other, he returns to his elementary school in rural Pennsylvania to talk with an auditorium full of tiny tots about skating and his career. Mr. Weir, you ARE a role model. It’s time to accept this.
Long term, can Weir get his head on straight? Throughout the documentary we never really see Weir taking responsibility for his professional shortcomings and lack of training mentality. At the end, he fires Hill and moves to New Jersey to work with the woman who indirectly inspired him to start skating: Oksana Baiul’s (Russian) coach, Galina Zmievskaya. Under her tutelage, we see him “behaving” himself better in practice and he wins his first medal (bronze) at the 2008 World Championships. But is it enough? Is Zmievskaya the key? Or does Johnny still have some personal digging to do?
“Pop Star on Ice” may not have the same topical significance as “An Inconvenient Truth,” but Barba and Pellerito offer a stirring 85 minutes on a captivating and always unpredictable character. Weir isn’t perfect, and really, who is? But if he’s able to put all of the pieces together, he could surpass everyone’s expectations.
And to follow up, the Sundance Channel will be airing a multi-episode reality show focusing on Weir between his bronze-medal finish a year and a half ago and his preparations as he makes a bid for this year’s Olympic team.
“Pop Star on Ice” plays at DocFest again on October 28, 2009, 9:15PM at the Roxie.