Case of the Fake People: On TLC’s CrazySexyCool Biopic

by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

TLC is one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, second only to the Spice Girls. They have sold 65 million albums, clocked 10 top-ten Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B singles (bested in girl-group zone only by Destiny’s Child), and changed so many of their fans’ lives they had to drop an entire album essentially responding to the buckets of inspirational letters they were receiving about it. (Fanmail, you know — “I get lonely tooooo.”) Their personal style and spiritual estiílo totally altered the culture; they popularized Cross Colours clothing to a mainstream audience, condoms as accessory (and, by extension, sexual empowerment and maturity), and fused rap and R&B when the twain were still skeptical bedpartners. Most importantly, they were early-on educating and inspiring women on having self-confidence, practicing safe-sex, being bossy, giving playas the gasface, and otherwise taking no shorts.

You may be aware of all of this, even if your only reference point is “Waterfalls,” a song which is probably playing on the house sound system at upwards of 65 Chipotles as I type this, or if the only gossip you have ever heard about them involved Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ unfortunate dalliance with a BBQ lighter and Andre Rison’s Nike collection. TLC, under no uncertain circumstances, is an integral part of American — nay! global! — culture, and even if they’ve only been in your zone peripherally, you have absorbed something of them. You know what they looked like, how they danced, the way their harmonies crept, and how they innovated. For so long they defined the avant-garde of pop music and embodied the essence of cool that any alternate version of it — i.e., one without the late Left Eye — feels off.

So when VH1’s TLC biopic, CrazySexyCool, was announced last year, it was greeted with a healthy amount of skepticism. It’s smart to approach any fictional depictions of musicians in the modern age with consternation, particularly because we feel like we are gonna get done so dirty on it: we’ve been living in the video era for a good 30 years now, and most of us grew up sucking on that cathode-ray teat (I just paraphrased a song by Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprosy, thanks). There was a sense of protection surrounding it — not just because a group like TLC feels sanctified, almost as fiercely adored and deified as an artist like Aaliyah, but also because most fans of the group have seen every inch of tape that’s ever captured their mugs. We have already memorized every hip flick, every baby hair, every floppy hat, and we can dig it all up on YouTube if we ever happen to forget: what is the point of the biopic in the NSA age?

Post-Beyoncé’s selfie archive, reenactments seem pointless, the parlance of Investigation Discovery specials on greedy sons who murked out their family for life insurance. Most damaging, reenactments require a suspension of disbelief that ends up being the music biopic’s main obstacle: Keke Palmer as Chilli, Lil Mama as Left Eye, and Drew Sidora as T-Boz certainly looked convincing enough, but there’s always the danger of a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum effect, where the jowls aren’t quite right and damn sure the accent isn’t either. CrazySexyCool’s most important antecedent was, of course, 2009’s Notorious, in which the rapper Gravy portrayed Biggie just a hair off. When we go into these productions, it’s always wise to do so with an expectation of inherent corniness, a school-play vibe, and a vague unreal quality to them no matter how high the production values.

Generally, the biopic — and especially the made-for-TV biopic — is like watching the plywood sets of daytime soaps compared to, you know, Gravity.

Notorious was based on a terrific book by former VIBE scribe Cheo Hodari Coker and cosigned by Big’s mom. It was cool, but I couldn’t quite get past the reenactment feelings, with one exception: Naturi Naughton as the goddess spitfire Lil’ Kim, which was just great fucking acting. She embodied the Queen Bee in spirit, stature, and sexuality, but most importantly: she got the accent right, thick, Brooklyn, and brackish in the syntax.

CrazySexyCool opened with T-Boz dancing in Atlanta (to “Planet Rock”? In like ‘91?), and at first, I thought Sadura would be this joint’s Naturi: speaking her lines, she sounded a bit like the real T-Boz playing “Tionne” in Belly (which was really just T-Boz playing herself, making for a funhouse mirror of alto aloofness and unusual sentence breaks). Keke Palmer, whom I love as an actor and a musician, flipped up on pitch with her best Chilli cupcaking. It wasn’t a bad approximation, though her eyes could have been slightly more expressive through all the scenes depicting boyfriend/ son’s father/ dog Dallas Austin in creep mode.

Then Lil “Left Eye” Mama drops in, and all bets are off: Mama, perhaps knowing this role was a second chance in her post-host/post-rap career, acted her ass off, hitting so many perfect Left Eye notes it got spooky. The Naturi scale of musician/actor accuracy just got bell-curved. Lil Mama won’t ever get an Emmy for this (for many reasons relating to VH1 as a network, and the Emmys being the whitest awards ever), but she should. She set Rison’s sneakers aflame with appropriate blank rage, smashed up his side-piece against the wall like a champion featherweight, and wept at her loneliness as though that was all there was. And as she sets off to Honduras to make the calm selfie doc of her spiritual cleansing, Lil Mama attains the same sereneness that the real Left Eye had in the devastating Last Days of Left Eye documentary you tried to forget you watched. Cut to her face, ensconced in that bandanna she wore all over her journey just before she died, cut to an actual waterfall, feel Left Eye’s sorrows wash away. In real time, everyone on Twitter held hands.

The script pattered through TLC’s early beginnings, which in certain ways felt flat — the scene with Left Eye and T-Boz eating dinner had dialogue like a Wiki page — but as it unfolded, CrazySexyCool really exceeded expectations. Major plot points centered around shade — particularly surrounding original manager Pebbles, who in this depiction poached their paychecks while showing her appreciation for their platinum plaques by copping them a trio of ugly-ass monogrammed Rav4s. I thought I’d be waiting for the money shot the whole time (the Rison shoe bonfire) but derived far more joy from the bananas-accurate recreations of real-life TLC videos. It’s risky to go shot-for-shot on some of the most-seen, most-loved music vids in history — you’re really gonna do the shot in “Waterfalls” that pans in on the group in a reflective pool?! But the cojones paid off, and the amount of work that all parties dedicated to historical accuracy rivaled Merchant Ivory. That diagonal camera angle coming in for Left Eye’s lopsided clown cap on “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”? They nailed it. What could have been the most cringe-worthy aspects of this biopic ended up being its most pleasurable parts, like getting a certified letter from the producers assuring us that “No really, we really really love TLC, really really.” They even got the dances down.

Biopics launch with billion-dollar budgets something like every single day in Hollywood, and they’ve got a history of establishment accolades. Take September’s Rush, Ron Howard’s tale about Formula One champ James Hunt, which has enjoyed reviews in all caps and exclamation points for the duration of autumn, or last year’s The Sessions, which garnered Helen Hunt an Oscar nom for her portrayal of real-life sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene. They worked because most people had no idea who those people were in the first place. The pleasure of watching CrazySexyCool aside, music biopics about people we think we know and definitely love are forever a dicey pursuit.

The proposed Aaliyah biopic, for example, not only makes me want to break fine china, but will likely end up feeling incomplete, as it’s unlikely her notoriously protective immediate family will participate. Andre 3000 as Hendrix seems like a role he was born to play, but also could go the route of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, something to get campy and giggle to at slumber parties 10 years down the line. And then there are the dueling ODB biopics. Who’s getting paid offa all this, anyhow? We’ll watch these regardless (and sometimes because of) of their disaster potential, as there is always the inherent human impulse to see our favorite stars as they were. But we also don’t want them, or the hip flicks we remember, to change in front of us.

Money’s why I thought that TLC agreed to participate in the making of this biopic all along, because I am cynical, and because Pebbles jacked their income so hard (SADFACE) there’s no doubt they’re still making up for it. But I changed my mind entirely at 11:06 p.m. EST last night. That was the moment VH1 aired a commercial in which the real T-Boz and Chilli popped up to do social media promo, wearing their commercial best. T-Boz looked especially princess-like in glimmering chandelier earrings. “Did ya’ll really miss CrazySexyCool: The TLC STORY?!,” she asked, before throwing to Chilli: “Then watch it right after this!” and shouting out whatever app VH1 was pushing. It was the most endearing thing we’d seen all night, not just because we’ll forever love them but because it ultimately answered all my questions: T-Boz and Chilli made a movie because they deserve it, because what they did should be recorded for posterity, because they will always love Left Eye, and because this group should be honored, on their own tip.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is a writer and editor in Brooklyn who learned feminism from ’90s rap and R&B.