CrazySexyCool Isn’t Great, but It Will Make You Watch TLC Videos on YouTube for Hours After

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Oct. 21 2013 11:17 AM

I Know That You’re Gonna Have It Your Way or Nothing at All

VH1’s TLC biopic CrazySexyCool.

TLC Crazy Sexy Cool
From left to right, Drew Sidora (T-Boz), Lil Mama (Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes), and Keke Palmer (Chilli) star in VH1's TLC biopic CrazySexyCool.

Photo courtesy Blake Tyers/VH1

Upon finishing CrazySexyCool, the new biopic about the great ’90s hip-hop/R&B outfit TLC airing on VH1 tonight, I spent an hour or so on YouTube watching the girl group’s videos, many of which had been painstakingly recreated in the film. There are so many: the video for “What About Your Friends,” which opens with a fashion show before “Not!” flashes on screen and T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli appear in self-appointed opposition to uptight models, wearing oversized clothes and goofy hats, a condom taped to Left Eye’s glasses. There’s “Aint 2 Proud 2 Beg,” “Creep,” “Waterfalls,” Left Eye memorably introducing them on MTV News as “on the TLC tip” and clearly explaining how you can sell 10 million records and go broke. CrazySexyCool is a not a particularly well-constructed biopic, hopping from moment to moment like moviemaking was just a matter of checking scenes off a list, but it does everything that Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, the two surviving members of TLC, could ask for: It will absolutely convince you that TLC was amazing. As art, CrazySexyCool is middling; as propaganda it is very effective. I have been singing “No Scrubs” nonstop since watching it, and unlike in 1999, when that song was earworming its way through the brainpans of most Americas, I’m not even mad about it.

CrazySexyCool tells the story of Watkins, Thomas, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes—cool, sexy, and crazy, respectively—from 1990, just before they signed a record deal, to 2002, when Lopes died in a car accident in Honduras. In the decade plus between, the group sold 65 million records and endured (and created) plenty of drama, from Watkins’ battle with sickle-cell anemia to Lopes’ infamous arson of then-boyfriend Andre Rison’s home, not to mention a very public bankruptcy case and legal fight against a restrictive record deal—events that have all been thoroughly chronicled already, most memorably in a very satisfying installment of Behind the Music.

CrazySexyCool hits all the major plot points and many of the minor ones, recreating existing footage of the band whenever it can, which is often. (This can get eerie given that the three actresses who star in the film—Drew Sidora, Lil Mama, and Keke Palmer, in T-L-C order—look a lot like the women they are playing; the resemblance between Lopes and Lil Mama is downright uncanny.) But the movie recreates without prioritizing. Themes are picked up and tossed aside and haphazardly picked up again. Left Eye’s grief about her demanding father’s sudden death is used to explain her reckless behavior, until it’s dropped as motivation. Chilli’s relationship with producer Dallas Austin gets undue screen time, only to end abruptly. Cheesy dramatic parallels are sometimes drawn between life experiences and songs, as when T-Boz suddenly starts to feel bad about her looks and writes “Unpretty,” a moment that feels less like a character beat than a way to shoehorn the song into the film.

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And yet, the movie nails TLC’s particular infectious, rambunctious spirit, their defining characteristic since they burst onto the scene in the early ’90s, wearing then-stylish clown clothes. Say what you will about early-’90s fashion, but TLC became famous stomping around in enormous pants, T-shirts, Doc Martens, and suspenders. They were three very attractive women in their very early 20s much more concerned with preaching safe sex than being sexy, and somehow, back then, that wasn’t a marketing problem. Laugh if you will, but that’s a pretty big upside for an aesthetically unfortunate fashion moment. Even when TLC embraced sexy and exposed their midriffs on their next album, they never lost their fundamental disinterest in sameness, their unique blend of cheeky cockiness harnessed to lyrical earnestness and faith in girl power. They were a group of women whose own authority stemmed from their willingness to defy authority, something you could hear in T-Boz’s singularly deep lead vocals even when she was cooing about waterfalls, and see in their attitude, from Left Eye’s reckless antics to the group’s unabashed declaration of bankruptcy at a post-Grammys press conference.

The movie best captures this attitude by recreating old videos of the group goofing around. TLC were at the height of their fame before the Internet was ubiquitous, but not before video cameras. They were filmed a lot, but they behaved like people who didn’t have to worry that their every move was going to be GIFed: they pulled faces and revealed themselves as cutups. The three actresses playing TLC, who all bring more to the parts than just looking like them, nail these montage scenes and their vibe of deep, silly friendship.

CrazySexyCool was made with the help and permission of Watkins and Thomas, who appear at the end of the film, singing their new single. As one would expect, the movie is very flattering. But while most of the rough edges have been sanded off—arson and alcoholism and discord are ultimately no match for sisterhood—a feistiness remains. Did TLC really burst into Clive Davis’ office with a posse of other women and start confiscating anything that said “TLC” on it, before kicking Puffy out of a meeting with Davis so they could talk about their contract? I don’t know, but I love that the surviving members of TLC embrace the story as part of their legend.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.