Friday, September 30, 2022

On “Promising Young Woman’s” “Stars Are Blind” Sequence

By Robert Dougherty 

Promising Young Woman” has only just become easier to talk about, now that those with Video On Demand are in on the film’s twists, turns and controversies. However, there is one sequence that critics and new fans can and have raved about without having to tip-toe around spoilers, namely the impromptu “Stars Are Blind” musical sequence/montage in a pharmacy.


​***DO NOT READ WITHOUT SEEING “PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN” FIRST – MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW***

Even that kind of defies easy description, given that it has Carey Mulligan’s Cassie abandon her rage and vengeance against the people and systems that destroyed her best friend, all to sing along in public to a song by Paris Hilton with her new boyfriend, Ryan. And yet, in the proper context, it has not only become perhaps the musical sequence of the year but possibly one of the most talked-about musical sequences on film since “Frozen’s” famed “Let It Go” number.

And as ridiculous as that comparison might appear on the surface, it is actually incredibly fitting, in ways even those who’ve sung along to both songs over and over again might not fully grasp after they stop singing. For those who love “Promising Young Woman” or who just love it until the final act, the “Stars Are Blind” scene may already be as addictive for those older audiences as “Let It Go” was for families and younger audiences seven years earlier. Of course, “Let It Go” was a completely original song written for a Disney animated movie and sung by Tony winner Idina Menzel. At the same time, “Stars Are Blind” was made years earlier by Hilton at the height of her fame/infamy, before “Promising Young Woman” repackaged it for audiences beyond Hilton’s original fanbase.

Astonishingly enough, both “Stars Are Blind” and “Let It Go” are two very different songs for two very different movies that serve the exact same narrative purpose. Not only are they incredibly catchy, but they are also seemingly incredibly empowering to sing along with because two very tortured main characters are singing them and rediscovering real joy for the first time in an incredibly long time – giving them and those whose hearts have broken for them some long-overdue relief.

Promising Young Woman’s” Cassie and “Frozen’s” Elsa are kindred spirits in pain, grief, guilt and blaming themselves for losing the person they loved most in the world. The circumstances of that loss are clearly different, as Elsa’s ice powers only harmed instead of killed her beloved baby sister, Anna. In contrast, Cassie’s best friend Nina died from the trauma of an assault Cassie wasn’t there to prevent.

Let It Go - Frozen

Nonetheless, while Elsa stayed away from Anna by choice for 13 years, and Cassie’s separation from Nina was far more permanent and not by her own hand, the two of them stopped living any kind of fulfilling lives once their best friends weren’t in them. Cassie still goes out every week, if only to perform her ritual of taking down “nice guys” before they become full-on rapists, whereas Elsa doesn’t let herself leave her room for a single minute. But while one has more freedom on paper and the other has more actual power on paper, both Cassie and Elsa are resigned to living on autopilot, letting all their former hopes for the future waste away, and secluding themselves from finding another lasting human connection that they don’t even think they deserve anymore.

Though one movie is an R-rated revenge story and the other is a Disney princess/queen musical, “Promising Young Woman” and “Frozen” may actually be two of the saddest character studies in recent years of powerful yet utterly broken young women, who both seem unusual and scary on the surface but who are both heartbreakingly lost without the brighter and more outgoing people who loved them anyway. Yet both movies balance out the pathos of their main characters with a broader satirical surface around them, as “Promising Young Woman” subverts the decades-old revenge movie formula for both comic and dramatic effect, and Frozen” parodies and mocks Disney’s decades-old fairy tale formula for more outright comedic relief.

But eventually, relief is something both “Promising Young Woman” and “Frozen” owe Cassie and Elsa, not to mention their audiences, if only for a brief shining moment. For Cassie, it comes when her vengeance finally seems to run its course, causing her to turn to the potential salvation of a healthy romantic relationship as a last resort. For Elsa, it comes when her powers are exposed and she has to leave her kingdom – after unknowingly putting it in an eternal winter – causing her to turn to the potential salvation of finally embracing her magic as a last resort.

After half a movie, each of Cassie and Elsa suffering in such raw, gut-wrenching agony, we finally get to see them come back to life before our eyes. What’s more, they both do so through the power of song, even though Elsa makes up her song on the spot by herself and Cassie is just following Ryan’s lead in singing an existing song. Yet, what’s more beyond that, their musical revivals have both enraptured their respective target audiences in ways that only a handful of other movie musical numbers have done in the last decade.

The Disney animated song industry usually hits this kind of mark once every few years, whereas Hilton has had a much less distinguished musical background to this point. Still, Disney and Hilton are powerful American brands often dismissed by more serious-minded audiences, and each has generated intense backlash for one deserved or undeserved reason or another. But when a Disney production like “Frozen” and “Let It Go” hits a nerve, it can take over all corners of the world whether some people grow tired of it or not, as Hilton did at the peak of her stardom on reality tv and the pop charts.

While it took years and one big Hilton fan in Emerald Fennell to give “Stars Are Blind” and Hilton their musical due, the result yielded a rom-com musical montage that not even most actual rom-coms have reached the level of in recent years; just as “Let It Go” has cast a shadow over most animated musicals and musical numbers in its time. Though they are both incredibly different numbers from incredibly different movies, few who’ve watched them have been able to stop humming along to them since they watched them – again and again – and few who’ve watched them have stopped themselves from being swept along in their tortured heroine’s first real moments of pure joy as these songs revive them.

Arguably, few who’ve watched them have caught on to how deceptively empowering these songs really are. Of course, “Promising Young Woman” spells it out rather clearly minutes later, when Cassie and Ryan’s romance ends in a very ugly fashion. However, even after seven years, it’s still unclear how many have caught on that “Let It Go” is just as much of a trap for Elsa as “Stars Are Blind” is for Cassie.

“Let It Go” is indeed a song where Elsa lets go of 13 years of repression, shame and self-hatred and lets her magic come to life again. But in all honesty, it is really a song where Elsa also doubles down on hiding herself from the world at large, vows to keep isolating herself only in a slightly more open space, and proclaims she will “turn away and slam the door,” which she’s already done for 13 years.

In that context, it is less an empowering song about freeing herself and more about her finding a new way to keep herself imprisoned – which might have been lost in translation as it became more of a worldwide phenomenon. Yet, beyond the song’s fame, music and surface messages, it is really a false proclamation of true freedom, self-worth and happiness, all of which she only truly finds by reuniting with Anna and rejoining her kingdom at the end. But even beyond that, the song in the “Frozen” franchise that does more to fully and completely transform Elsa for good arguably isn’t “Let It Go” but “Show Yourself” from “Frozen 2,” which wasn’t even the signature song of that sequel although it probably should have been.

​”Stars Are Blind” is also a deceptive sequence for Cassie, where she does seem to let go of her own loss and anger to choose a more hopeful path with Ryan. But in all honesty, while it is objectively healthier for Cassie to at least try and move forward, it is also her last option when all others have failed. In a way, Cassie is just making herself play the part of a rom-com heroine, much like all the various drunk characters and caricatures she plays every week at bars. By this point, society has worn her down enough to where she’s thrown in the towel and settled for letting herself be ‘saved’ by a man, which is very much like a traditional rom-com in the most unflattering of ways.

Even if Ryan hadn’t been revealed as complicit in Nina’s rape, or if the movie ended before that point, or if Cassie got to live at the end at all, this kind of outcome for Cassie would have raised a lot of red flags on its own. Yet leaving all that aside, the “Stars Are Blind” sequence remains a false proclamation of recovery, rebirth and a new life well before the full truth about Ryan is uncovered. But the sheer power of “Stars Are Blind” and the power of these mere crumbs of happiness for Cassie are enough to overwhelm her and an audience that probably should have known better as well; just as “Let It Go” did for Elsa and perhaps for the audience that was swept along with her.

Even so, millions still keep singing along to “Let It Go” and touting its power, despite how it might actually be a step backward in Elsa’s larger journey; much as those who’ve fallen for “Promising Young Woman” these last few days or months have still been swept away by “Stars Are Blind” despite knowing full well it is all downhill for Cassie from there. Funny enough, the fact it all starts crashing down when Ryan is exposed is a trick borrowed from “Frozen” as well, which also had an end of act 2 twist where a supposed Prince Charming was suddenly revealed as a villain too.

This led to “Frozen” ending in a slightly subversive fashion by Disney standards, in which love between sisters and not “true love’s kiss” saves the day. In contrast, “Promising Young Woman” goes so much further in subverting its genre’s traditional ending by killing Cassie and only letting her get justice for herself and Nina after their deaths. It is certainly far from a Disney ending, despite closing with one more big musical sequence of sorts.

Cassie and Elsa are two of the most unfairly tragic, lonely, heartbreaking heroines of recent years. Still, only one of them got to have a fairy tale ending to their pain not once but twice – whereas any hope for even a reality-based happy ending for Cassie is snuffed out. Yet, for one brief shining moment in the middle of their adventures, both of them find hope after years of torment through song. And not just through song, but through two of the most instantly beloved movie musical sequences in the last several years; although both of them, including the Disney number, are really nothing but musical montages of false hope.

This hasn’t made “Frozen” audiences turn off “Let It Go” these last seven years, much like the aftermath of “Stars Are Blind” won’t stop the growing fanbase of “Promising Young Woman” from believing that ‘magical’ trip to the pharmacy, despite knowing what happens to Cassie after she leaves. In this and in a lot more than one might think, these two polar opposite movies and their heroines are one in the same.

Bet you this article went in directions you least expected. What do you think of “Promising Young Woman?” Did you like the “Stars Are Blind” sequence? ​Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertdoc1984

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