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Movie review: ‘Downfalls High’ artfully interweaves Machine Gun Kelly’s latest album with film

(Courtesy of AS Entertainment and Moonlight Cinema)

"Downfalls High"

Directed by Machine Gun Kelly

Facebook

Jan. 15

By Zoë Prendiville

Jan. 17, 2021 12:20 p.m.

“Downfalls High” brings Machine Gun Kelly’s No. 1 pop-punk album “Tickets to My Downfall” to life through a tragic tale of everlasting love and toxic fame.

Written and directed by MGK and MOD SUN, the musical film premiered Jan. 15 via MGK’s Facebook page. Starring TikTok sensation Chase Hudson as high schooler Fenix and “Euphoria” actress Sydney Sweeney as his love interest, Scarlett, the movie contains other notable appearances including blackbear and Iann Dior. The film is a true visual experience of the album – raw VHS footage juxtaposed against cinematic shots and music videos cleverly highlight the emotions of each song from the album, albeit rather brusquely at times.

But such abruptness helps embody the feeling MGK gets from living and performing as Machine Gun Kelly and then jolting back into reality as Colson Baker father to 12-year-old Casie, boyfriend to actress Megan Fox and recovering addict.

[Related: Theater review: Audience members can be a ‘Citizen Detective’ in online production]

“Downfalls High” opens in a cold, insect-ridden psychiatric hospital with MGK solemnly narrating, “In a world where everybody wants millions of dollars and likes on the internet, there was a boy who gave up everything, because all he wanted was her.”

The first song off the album, “title track,” begins to play as MGK and blink-182’s drummer, Travis Barker, perform in the hospital’s recreation room while Fenix is being wheeled out of the hospital to be discharged. A news bit cuts in, announcing how a Downfalls High student – whose music was climbing up the charts – severed his own ear during graduation. Already, any MGK fan would see the artist in Fenix: two rising stars with prophesied downfalls.

MGK then immediately comes back on screen, slamming on his guitar and belting “I’m sellin’ tickets to my downfall.” The phrase notably ties together the themes in “title track” and the graduation scene, in which the rise to success has disturbingly made the event’s audience eager to see the protagonist hitting rock bottom.

The film soon progresses into a classic drama: The popular Scarlett finally notices and falls in love with the lonely, alternative Fenix who gets bullied by jocks. Scarlett then ditches her friends and hangs out with him and his dropout, rebellious circle. The stakes of their relationship further escalate as she becomes pregnant – only to die in a tragic car crash the night she’s going to tell Fenix about the baby.

Scarlett’s death occurs early on and serves as the catalyst for the story, but the real tragedy in the film is Fenix’s inability to get over her and his inner conflict with his growing popularity.

Heartbroken after his girlfriend’s death, Fenix starts his own band, The Pink Switchblades, with the guitar Scarlett gave him the day she died. Although the script limits Hudson’s potential for emotional range, the intensity of their relationship manifests in the score and the nostalgic old clips of the couple.

In contrast with the tragedy of Scarlett’s death, the band holds their first high-energy pop-punk concert for a dubious audience, just to win over everyone afterward – including Scarlett’s best friend, who develops feelings for Fenix.

[Related: Musical review: While spectacularly produced, ‘Frozen’ fails to bring anything new to the table]

The film strays from predictability at this point, as “my ex’s best friend” – a song about getting into a complicated relationship with the titular individual – plays as Fenix resists the friend’s temptations. Such development is something not often seen in teenage love stories, as individuals often move on from first love to find a different happy ending. It’s a refreshing take on a tired trope, upholding the true power of real love.

Despite his immense success and opportunities with new girls, Fenix still only thinks of Scarlett. And after discovering she was pregnant when she died, he reaches his last straw and cuts off his ear on stage during graduation in a deliberately timed moment of despair. The bloody scene was not meant for shock value but as a reference to the famed artist Vincent van Gogh, who had a mental illness and cut off his ear in a moment of anger – and to the notion that “many great artists (are) so tortured,” according to a tweet by MOD SUN.

It’s noted that Fenix cuts off his ear with a pink switchblade he found in Scarlett’s old purse, symbolizing how the positive attention Fenix received from his former bullies because of his band’s success was a significant factor in his downfall. The graduation scene emphasizes the toxicity of popularity in society, a phenomenon so clearly displayed in the halls of every local high school.

MGK most likely can relate to the feeling of fake love, or clout chasing, as his journey to being a chart-topping artist has been one that has lasted for more than a decade. The audience is able to feel the dark reality of fame through the direction of the film.

The final scene shows MGK at his loneliest state, sitting alone in the school’s auditorium, singing “play this when i’m gone.” The song is a deep-cutting love letter to the artist’s real-life daughter – essentially his note to her if he dies. The lyrics work in Fenix’s favor as well, as “I’ll miss you” plays over and over again once the credits begin to flash, ending the film on a powerfully emotional note.

By interjecting high production music videos and short acting scenes with candid behind-the-scenes shots, the audience is able to appreciate the artistry of the music, while feeling the raw emotions through a more realistic, lifelike lens. Each song is played in snippets to keep the narrative rolling, and more importantly, they help draw out emotions or bring up the energy. Through this film, MGK has certainly secured his right in Hollywood and shows promise as a director.

And although he keeps hinting at his downfall, it looks like it’s only up from here for Machine Gun Kelly.

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Zoë Prendiville
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