It isn’t particularly surprising that the new documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky essentially serves as an eighty-minute advert for the four-piece K-pop group. Although celebrity documentaries don’t always portray their subjects in the best light, it’s clear that this one isn’t intended to critique anything about Blackpink and their work. Overall, the documentary does a perfectly adequate job of fulfilling its intended function; giving its viewers a carefully constructed introduction to the group’s members and their paths to success.
The four—Rosé, Jisoo, Jennie, and Lisa—are each featured discussing their rise from their humble beginnings in the notoriously rigorous K-pop trainee system. Footage is shown of their non-stop singing and dancing practices, all in the hope of becoming one of the chosen few to debut in one of the K-pop groups. For the teens in Blackpink, their sacrifices pay off, leading to their eventual prominence as global popstars. In the documentary, this trajectory culminates in their debut performance at Coachella on their world tour, underscoring the film’s ambition to appeal to a global (but particularly Western) audience.
In doing so, the narrative focuses on what sets Blackpink apart from other K-pop acts: its international appeal. Three of the four women were not raised in Korea, and one of them, Lisa, is Thai. This diversity, the documentary argues, is what makes Blackpink unique (read: more popular). Though the global prominence of K-pop has exploded in recent years, groups still struggle to get radio play and break American pop charts. So it’s no coincidence that the documentary is attempting to appeal to newer audiences in the West—it’s director (Caroline Suh) and production team are American, and its release is on Netflix. What’s curious is that while there is so much attention paid to the group’s global identity, there’s little time devoted to Blackpink’s actual music and artistry. Though the four don’t write their own music, I would argue that both old and new fans of Blackpink would be interested to learn how the tracks are meant to reflect their members’ personalities and aesthetic. The documentary thereby validates the cynic’s view that its true priorities are in its mass-market appeal, artistry be damned.
Predictably, the documentary therefore stops short of giving the viewer any revealing information about the group beyond the superficial. It engenders no feeling that its cameras are intruding on private spaces — everything feels focus-tested and artificially constructed, reminiscent of reality television. When the four are shown eating at a restaurant, shopping, or hanging out outside, the environment is always vacant and quiet; with no gawping fans present or any other intrusions from the real world. Only when the members discuss the grind demanded of their training do the moments feel more sensitive and intimate. But the documentary still holds the viewer at arm’s length, reminding them that the sacrifices were worth it in service of their ultimate, stratospheric success.
Even if you were to ultimately assess Light Up the Sky purely as a piece of promotional material, it’s still pretty entertaining. My personal knowledge of K-pop is limited to only the most popular groups and some hit songs, so I started watching the documentary as a relatively uninformed audience. I can’t deny that doing so definitely helped me to understand the members’ charms and the groups’ appeal. If the documentary is able to make even the most casual of K-pop fans curious enough to stream Blackpink’s music and watch their music videos on YouTube, I’d argue its ultimate ambitions were a resounding success.
Blackpink: Light Up The Sky is available to stream now exclusively on Netflix
by Keno Katsuda
Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.