TIFF in the Closet

R Kelly Trapped in the Closet still

Jerry Lee Lewis. Ted Nugent. Michael Jackson. R. Kelly. Musicians with rabid followings that have been accused of or proven to be slightly… well, eccentric. The vitriol surrounding the things they have allegedly (I should state that for legal purposes) done seems to flare up like wildfire every now and then, only to be forgotten about a short time later by people falling back on their back catalogues and realizing they were all damned great musicians. Lewis would become a bit more reclusive. Nugent SHOULD become a bit more reclusive than he already is. Jackson sadly passed away. But R. Kelly just keeps on truckin’, churning out instalments of his seemingly never ending Trapped in the Closet saga at a rate more prolific than the average singer songwriter with a penchant for poppin’ bottles and bumpin’ and grindin’ in the club. Sure, he has other material that comes out from time to time, but his other tracks as of late don’t have nearly the cache or longevity that his batshit soap opera comes with.

At 9pm this Saturday, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will engage in one of the largest en masse appreciations of the soap opera that captured America’s imagination in no way since The Young and the Restless (or possibly Passions). It’s a sing-along – possibly more appropriately described as a speak or croon-along at times – to the first 22 parts of the now 33 part and counting series. For fans, it’s a chance to once and for all embrace the cult aspect of this kitchy phenom in the company of likeminded revellers, many of whom will probably had drinks at the bar either before or after the show. (The Lightbox has two of these in the building, technically and the neighbourhood is one of the city’s booziest.)

For the uninitiated, you are probably too far behind for me to explain to you every detail in this sprawling saga that one online analyst likened to Laurence Stern’s Tristam Shandy. You can read all about it on the series’ spoilerific and positively labyrinthine Wikipedia page (flagged in November of last year for being too long, possibly like the series) to catch up on Kellz’ tale of a one night stand that leads to an intensely complicated and deadly situation involving nosy neighbours, midgets, things best confessed in church, important hidden messages about sexually transmitted diseases, and fake thugs. They even have graphs.

But for all the complexity of Trapped in the Closet – which I rewatched in preparation for this piece but I still can’t keep straight – its beauty lies in an underlying and almost brilliant simplicity. Opening up with a syrupy drip and almost ethereal whistle, it’s clear the story takes precedence over the music for the first few episodes. The actual dialogue and narrative is disarmingly snappy and wittier than one would expect. It’s patently ridiculous to listen to after a while, but it’s clear that the R&B hitmaker is clearly having a blast trying to keep things going. It’s not quite Stern, but it’s not too far removed from what Tyler Perry does in a more genteel manner in his comedies.

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He casts himself in the role of the philandering Sylvester who sets the story in motion, but Kelly is the only voice to be heard across every character (including the female characters of all ages and Michael K. Williams’ police officer). He even narrates the stage directions, which makes sense since the first five parts were initially released simply as tracks on his 2005 TP.3 Reloaded album. Beyond those first initial offerings, it becomes clear Kelly realized the gonzo potential of the endeavour, going whole hog with the gags, transitions between multiple locations, and borderline non-sequiturs. Not once is it a credible look into the cycle of indecency that is infidelity, and at times it’s certainly politically incorrect in the extreme, but there’s something strangely endearing about the highly calculated awkwardness of it all. With every awkward pause, bizarrely realistic sing-song conversation, and increasingly outlandish cliffhanger, it’s easy to see why it connects to such a wide range of fans of camp and kitsch.

The evening also includes a warm up sing-along of other Kelly classics “Step in the Name of Love,” his break out hit “Bump N’ Grind,” and the pop masterpiece “Ignition (Remix)” The only mystery is why no one thought to include his biggest critical success-slash-actual punchline “I Believe I Can Fly.” Maybe they’re saving that for a future instalment a few years down the road.

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